Flintoff saddled with mission improbable

Fourth Test: Need is for young all-rounder to be brilliant and consistent

It is five summers since Andrew Flintoff was summoned by England as the latest kid all-rounder on the block. He could have been finished by now, through a combination of injury, fecklessness and misfortune, washed up on the same tide as the other flotsam of 1998: Godzilla, the Spice Girls, Dr Jozef Venglos. Instead, "Freddie" Flintoff is just beginning.

Flintoff, 25 matches down the line as a Test cricketer in a period when England have played 60, has arrived. He fulfils the main criterion for his occupation: he is worth his place as both batsman and bowler. He is getting results, he is the fulcrum of the team. Yet his buccaneering 55 yesterday and his fast, aggressive bowling later managed to embrace his frailty as well as his fortitude.

Having nurtured him for so long, England also need him. When they are having the worst of matters, as they did for much of yesterday, he has to take responsibility for showing the way. This was a crucial season for him, and therefore for England. Had he failed to advance, a whole strategy would have been down the pan.

He began the summer with averages of below 20 with the bat and almost 50 with the ball. If all-rounders had to apply for their jobs, those are the sort of details on the CV that might have potential employers reaching for the wastepaper basket and the stock rejection letter.

Although it may not always seem so, England selectors try to be a little more flexible. But Flintoff remains an irritating cricketer as well as an endearing one. His innings yesterday ensured that England faced a first-innings deficit of only 35, but the way he was batting suggested that he could give them a lead of a similar margin.

He struck the ball venomously as usual, but there were a couple of miscued shots that must have put his heart in his mouth as well as the ball in the air. He went to his half-century with a dismissive pull to mid-wicket, his third six. Then, with nine wickets down, he was bowled stepping back to Makhaya Ntini, making enough room to build a four-bedroom house.

Perhaps Flintoff decided that with one wicket left on an increasingly untrustworthy pitch he needed to be expansive. Flintoff had been so bruisingly effective beforehand (his runs came from 68 scored while he was in) that it was difficult to be critical. And when he is retired, these mildly irresponsible, often devastating shots that he plays will be the subject of much affectionate recollection.

What a card, we shall say, just as the tales of Denis Compton's poor running between the wickets and his apparent, if apocryphal, tendency to roll up for the start of play still in his dinner jacket are related so fondly. How they must have driven colleagues and spectators up the wall at the time.

When South Africa batted, Flintoff bowled with passion and speed. He meant it all right, but he went unrewarded. For all his pace, he may not quite move the ball sufficiently in the air or off the pitch, but he is not a lucky bowler. One day soon he will take a large haul, or we shall forever mention his bowling misfortunes.

Flintoff is still only 25 and about to enter his pomp, which should last for eight years or so. Throughout that time he will remain the subject of intense debate because of his importance to the side. At present, this scrutiny is manifesting itself in his precise position in the order.

He is No 7, and there is a considerable body of opinion that he should be No 6. The difference between six and seven in a Test-match batting order is much more than a single digit. It can get people terribly hot under the collar: one could be said to be the last recognised batsman, the other the start of the non-batsmen.

The all-rounder to whom all other England all-rounders are likened is, of course, the great Ian you-know-who. It is frequently said that until somebody like him comes along, who can bowl as prodigiously and bat at No 6, England will struggle to achieve consistent success.

Maybe so, but while it is true that Botham, for it was he, played 94 of his 161 Test innings at six, he was also at No 7 36 times. Indeed, his finest hours, against Australia in 1981, came when he was at seven.

England have made a fist of this series, but it has been tough. There are five different players in this side from the line-up who took on Zimbabwe in the opening Test of the summer. The presence of Martin Bicknell and Kabir Ali in this match took the number of players used this summer to 18. Of those, six have been debutants, only two of whom have had a place at the Academy.

If the Academy is to be worth the cash, that sort of policy cannot continue, but it was correct to recall Bicknell at the age of 34. He last played in 1993, and in terms of matches has now overtaken Younis Ahmed as the player with the longest gap in his career. Younis was absent for 104 Pakistan games, Bicknell waited while England played 115 Tests.

Other splendid English seam bowlers have been similarly ignored before: Derek Shackleton was recalled after nearly 12 years, Les Jackson played his two Tests almost 12 years apart. The question arises: have England really had that many straighter seamers than Bicknell in the interim?

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