Can Flintoff become the new Botham?
Over the last two days at Lord's Andrew Flintoff has shown why he is the jewel in the crown of England's cricket. After the medics or the team management had had a sudden change of mind about his fitness to bowl late on Saturday, he blasted out the West Indies tail with a ferocious spell in which he hit the stumps three times. Yesterday he walked out to bat when England were approaching a declaration and quickly came to the boil.
In 46 unforgettable minutes he hit 58 off 42 balls peppering the boundary and the spectators with two sixes and six fours. Although there were a few lusty blows that would not be found in any coaching book, there were also some wonderful strokes played with breathtaking power and timing. He and Vaughan put on 92 in these 46 minutes.
When he came into the England side in 1998 as a raw young man of 20, he was very much the uncut diamond. He had great flair as an all-round cricketer, but he badly needed to learn to discipline his talents. It was not his duty to try to hit the cover off every ball he faced any more than it was to try and bowl as fast as he could regardless of length and direction.
It has been fascinating to watch the way in which this uncut stone has been polished and cut over the last six years. This is obviously greatly to the credit of Flintoff himself and also of those like his agent, Neil Fairbrother, and the England management, who have advised, coached and cautioned. As a result Flintoff is well on the way to becoming the most compelling cricketer of his generation.
Comparisons are as odious as they are often meaningless but Flintoff is coming to mean as much to England as Ian Botham did for 15 years. Flintoff has the ability to win Test matches in three different departments just as Botham did. His bowling and his batting have been on view at Lord's these past two days and before this match has ended it may well be that his brilliant slip catching will also make a significant difference.
Of course, Flintoff has not yet stood an Ashes series on its head, but from the way in which he is now playing and is all the time continuing to improve, that splendid day may not be too far away. It is against this present Australian side that we will be able truly to gauge the quality and indeed the greatness of Flintoff as an all-round cricketer. Botham never quite delivered as he would have liked against Clive Lloyd and then Viv Richards' great West Indian sides in the late Seventies and their all-powerful fast bowlers. This was the ultimate test and by his own standards Botham failed it.
With Flintoff there is no doubt that he is close to being the finished article and that he will, injuries permitting, be the centrepiece of England's cricket for the foreseeable future. His fitness may be a problem as it has been these last few weeks, but Flintoff is not a man who can easily be put in cotton wool, for he can only play cricket one way. We must keep our fingers crossed.
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