Box-office - me and you Both

Long hot summer: Fred still has a way to go to match Beefy's exploits, but he's getting there
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The Independent Online

The comparison has always been odious. But it is still as inevitable as it is irresistible. While Andrew Flintoff was swashbuckling to his fourth Test hundred on Friday - peppering the stands with his sixes, leaving a packed house agape at his power and the unalloyed joy he took from his work, his cheery face framed by an embryonic beard - the deeds of an illustrious predecessor drifted inexorably into mind.

Flintoff has unquestionably arrived as an international cricketer now. His figures speak for themselves. The breathtaking career-best 167 in the Second npower Test meant it was the sixth consecutive match in which he had passed fifty in one of the innings. Yesterday morning, as Brian Lara approached his own hundred, Flintoff, who had become beardless overnight, was whistled up.

The crowd chanted: "Freddie, Freddie, Freddie." And with only his fourth ball Freddie obliged. He softened up the legend with a yorker and then cajoled him into driving off the edge to third slip. It was a lethal, timely incision. Flintoff had made three more like it at Lord's a week earlier. In the afternoon he snaffled a stunning low one-handed catch around the corner and made it look nonchalant. This is his stage, his time.

He is in his 27th year, and nobody disagreed when he said: "Hopefully I can get better and better. I think I'm better in terms of maturity, in understanding my own game and knowing more of what is required to play Test cricket, on and off the field."

Only one other England player of recent vintage possessed this kind of magic, seized spectators with such fervent expectancy. In his 27th year, Ian Botham too bestrode the stage. England played India and Pakistan in a series of three matches each that year and Botham was invariably at the centre of proceedings.

It was the season after his annus mirabilis against Australia and every time he walked out observers expected him to make something happen. Usually, Beefy responded. Against India he was dominant with the bat, making two hundreds, including 208 at The Oval. "Botham went on," reported Wisden, "with increasing power and majesty to his highest score at this level. The Indians found it virtually impossible to bowl to him as he drove with rare ferocity, one straight six leaving its mark for posterity in the shape of a hole in the pavilion roof. Inevitably there was a sense of anti-climax after his departure."

Against Pakistan at Edgbaston, "with Botham bowling 21 overs unchanged and showing splendid stamina, the game was won and lost". A simple change of name and you could (almost) be talking of the 2004 version of Freddie Flintoff. He does not bowl the long spells, but makes the big hits, and for Botham's hole in the roof read Flintoff's six into (and out of) the hands of his dad.

It is no surprise that Beefy (along with Viv Richards) was Freddie's teenage hero. Wasn't he everybody's? As the new book My Life in Pictures, says: "Flintoff was much taken with Botham's charisma on the field, the hex he appeared to have over the Australians, his attacking inclinations with both bat and ball, and his spectacular catching. Above all, he loved the way Botham won matches almost single-handedly." And now Flintoff is beginning to exercise similar influence.

Of course, the Botham in his 27th year had done somewhat more than the Flintoff in his 27th. He had knocked over the Aussies for a start, and by the end of that summer he had already scored 11 of his 14 centuries and taken 249 of his 383 Test wickets. He was not only the biggest cricketer, he was the biggest sportsman, even the biggest star of all. His every move was dissected, his peccadillos probed, the comings and goings of his facial hair scrutinised.

Flintoff has not reached that status. He has never played in a Test against Australia, never mind knocked them over. The tittle-tattle of other celebrities' lives exercises much more attention - and do not suppose Freddie worries about that. He is unaffected by all that has happened to him, can hardly believe it is happening.

But when he walks out to bat or prepares to bowl the crowd cheers him to the echo, as they did not, for all the palpable anticipation, cheer Beefy. That is probably to do with the changing nature of crowds.

But there is undoubtedly the sense that there is more, much more, to come from Flintoff. He is definitely shredding opposition nerves, witness the hasty defensive fields set by Lara on his entrance. When Botham was 26 in that year of 1982 we had not quite seen all there was to come, but thereafter the slow decline began. He had exhausted himself, achieved it all. His body, never a temple, started to give out, and the batting average after that fell to 29 and the bowling average increased to 37.

Whereas Flintoff's batting average is going up - now to 32, a mere point behind Botham's career figure - and his bowling average is, bit by bit, coming down. Flintoff, it should be said, will never, ever be the prodigious bowler that Botham was in his pomp. He cannot swing the ball as much. But he has begun to have that rare capacity for striking when it matters. Why, he almost expects it himself.

He will never escape Botham, perhaps no England all-rounder ever will. But what Freddie wants to be, what in truth he is becoming and which will be confirmed if one day soon he can help to secure the Ashes, is not the next Botham. He is the first Flintoff.