Flintoff cameo takes the centre stage

Don't study the statistics, listen to the audience. Andrew Flintoff's flamboyant cameo in his final innings in Test cricket at the Oval yesterday means he finishes with a batting average of 31.77. The Big Man hit four boundaries, scoring 22 off 18 balls before holing out to long on, and left, as he had arrived not long before, to a standing ovation of unconditional fondness.

As he approached the dressing room steps, he swivelled to the left and raised his bat to the crowd and then turned and repeated the gesture to the members in the Pavilion. It was a modest gesture by a remarkable cricketer whose Test performances have only rarely reached the peaks of which he was capable, but who never lost the affection of his large and loyal audience. So great is the interest still that Fred's Knee has sometimes seemed to be the biggest sports story of the summer.

As farewells go, Flintoff's has been a slightly downbeat affair rather than the blaze of glory Andrew Strauss thought Flintoff deserved. None of the extraordinary melodrama that accompanied Sir Don Bradman's dismissal, bowled by an Eric Hollies googly in his last Test innings, which I saw at The Oval as a boy almost exactly 61 years ago.

Having arrived to his first standing ovation, and looking impressed as Ricky Ponting shook his hand in a gesture typical of Australia's well-mannered skipper, Flintoff did not misjudge the line of the second ball he received, as Bradman had done. He plonked his front foot down the wicket and swiped Marcus North's gentle off-spin to cow corner for four.

In North's next over, Flintoff tickled a ball round the corner for another four. Off the more threatening deliveries from Peter Siddle, he hoiked one to the mid-wicket boundary, before returning to cow corner for one last boundary off North before fatally under-hitting a drive to the long-on boundary.

This last innings will blend into others rather than lodging in the memory, as did his fierce 72 in the first innings here against Australia in 2005, and his violent, match-turning 95 against South Africa in 2005.

Before batting he had left only a shallow impression on Australia's first innings, performing tidily, taking one for 35 in 13.5 overs, and he bowled three overs at the start of Australia's second innings, bowling three overs and evidently not caring for his creaking frame, and taking a hurtful tumble trying to stop a drive.

His bowling average remains higher than his batting average. What lingers in the memory is the style rather than the statistics, which are impressive without challenging Ian Botham's record (his Test batting average was 33.54, bowling 28.42). But Flintoff's figures are superior to Stuart Broad's.

Broad succeeded him at the wicket yesterday and is a candidate for the succession as England's favourite all rounder; before the close the crowd was calling for him to be brought into the attack. But he still lacks Flintoff's warmth, and his vulnerability.

Damn the statistics. Forget the embarrassing episodes. Sure, it is true that Michael Vaughan's Test record is more impressive; Nasser Hussain was a more important transitional figure, and Kevin Pietersen is capable of flirting with greatness as a batsman. But Fred Flintoff has been the image and the icon of English cricket in the Noughties. That's not a bad epitaph for a Test career.

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