Brian Viner: Greatness of Flintoff and Lee proves the value of right kind of upbringing

Colin and Susan Flintoff, and Bob and Helen Lee, have played a part in this series, too
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is no accident that they both involved Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee, two of the leviathans of the series. While we all knew Flintoff's nuclear capabilities with bat and ball, not everyone was aware of his qualities as a man. Yet his solicitude towards a bruised and battered Lee at Edgbaston, while the rest of the England team and indeed the rest of England was going bananas following Steve Harmison's last-gasp dismissal of Mike Kasprowicz, was wonderful to behold.

It might seem perverse to pick a non-playing moment as definitive of a series that has yielded so much great play, but that's what it was. And on another level it transcended not only the match, not only cricket, but sport itself. Magnanimity in victory, nobility in defeat, respect and concern for your opponent; those are life skills, not merely sporting attributes.

But before I get so sentimental that I start writing in rhyming couplets, let me also ladle some praise over Lee. He has been magnificent, too, bowling but also batting his heart out, and conducting himself with such manifest decency that he has denied us the one pleasure that previous Ashes series have delivered yet this one has signally failed to produce: the Aussie quick bowler we love to hate.

Which brings me to my second unforgettable image, Lee's positively primal roar as he clean bowled Flintoff at Trent Bridge with a brilliant off-cutter that might just have been the ball of the series. I can be generous about it now; at the time, by reducing England to 111 for 6, it seemed like a hammer-blow to our hopes of winning the Ashes. England needed only 18 more runs to win the match, but far more pertinently, no longer had Flintoff to get them.

Even as my heart sank at the sight of Lee roaring like the lord of the jungle, however, it thumped with exhilaration. Whatever your allegiance, it was a great sporting moment, and the drama of it was compounded by what had passed between the two men in Birmingham.

Now, reams have been written about Flintoff these past few weeks, and quite a bit, too, about Lee. Yet there is one dimension to both of them that has scarcely been explored: their relationship with their parents.

That subject might seem a little tangential with the Ashes still in the balance, but stick with me: Colin and Susan Flintoff, and Bob and Helen Lee, have played a part in this series, too.

I once touched on this business of parental influence in a discussion with a fine American sportswriter, Tom Callahan, about Tiger Woods. "The key to Tiger and most of these guys is the father," Tom said. "In sports like American football, it's often the mother, mainly because there were no fathers in those neighbourhoods. And with Nick Faldo and Greg Norman it's the mother, but usually it's the father."

Callahan added: "The real patriarchs of the US tour were men like Charlie Nicklaus, Harry Player and Deacon Palmer, and if you want to get those guys to blubber, you just mention the old man."

I have met Flintoff three or four times, Lee not at all, and wouldn't like to speculate in either case on which parent has been the most telling influence. But it seems abundantly clear that the reason both men play uncompromisingly hard yet in exactly the right spirit lies in Preston, Lancashire, and Wollongong, New South Wales, in their upbringing.

Flintoff is tremendously close to his parents, and Colin Flintoff, who is a former plumber, is by all accounts a disarmingly modest man (Preston seems to specialise in disarmingly modest ex-plumbers, there's another one called Sir Tom Finney), a quality that is evident in his younger son.

Lee, meanwhile, comes from a similarly tight family unit (one of his two brothers, Shane, has played one-day cricket for Australia) and has been phoning his folks frequently during this tour. Bob Lee, like Colin Flintoff, is said to be a decent, modest, sound man, with a strong sense of morality.

My spy in the Australian camp assures me, in what is admittedly not the greatest stroke of espionage, that the older Lees are "really lovely people".

All of which should perhaps be kept in mind as men in blazers discuss how to build on England's momentous cricketing summer: at the end of the day, or more aptly at the beginning of the day, it's not educational infrastructures or coaching systems that produce great Test cricketers with all the right virtues, but parents.