As Andrew Flintoff took his 200th Test wicket yesterday – or his 193rd depending on your view of what constitutes a Test match – it was possible to wonder how England coped in his absence. Of course, that was matched by consideration of how they should manage his presence.
That is the thing about Freddie: can't live without him, don't know how to live with him. He was welcomed back a Test ago with arms as wide open as the Red Sea and there is no question that he would be in any England team that rational selectors, as well as the current bunch, would care to pick.
At 2.17pm, 10 years and eight days after making his England debut, he became the 12th England bowler, the 55th in all, to reach the milestone. The first was Australia's Clarrie Grimmett at the age of 44 in 1936. The first Englishman was Alec Bedser in 1953.
It was a characteristically dogged piece of bowling that did for Neil McKenzie. The first three balls, all quick, were left outside off stump, the fourth, slightly straighter, was whipped through mid-wicket, the fifth was driven straight for four. Flintoff then delivered a replica of the fourth ball, perhaps slightly quicker, to which McKenzie elected to play a forward defensive stroke. It snaked back and he was straightforwardly leg before.
By this time Flintoff was already doing most of the bowling – and all of it that mattered. If there were a way to test his dodgy left ankle, this was it. But his heart, as ever, was big and getting bigger. His 201st wicket (or 194th) utterly embodied his spirit.
Flintoff had been denied the wicket of Jacques Kallis in his 22nd over, although the yorker would have gone on to hit the stumps if it had not struck Kallis's toe. Flintoff, like Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet's Network, was as mad as hell and he wasn't going to take it any more. He let umpire Aleem Dar know his feelings from square leg throughout the next over before he took the ball again.
In imperfect light he bowled venomously at Kallis. The first ball of the over was a bouncer which whistled past Kallis's nose. He probably smelt the cordite. The next two were quick and slanted in; Kallis was rattled. The fourth ball was a ripsnorter, full and swinging away. It ripped out Kallis's off stump.
Flintoff, the crowd roaring him on, was in his element. It was visceral stuff. A B de Villiers may as well have been a walking wicket. And yet.
No bowler has taken so many wickets and yet so few times – twice – taken five Test wickets in an innings. Indeed, you have to go down to 99th place on the all-time list before finding another bowler (Merv Dillon, of West Indies, who has 131) with so few five-wicket hauls. Flintoff's advocates would say he has applied pressure for others. So he has, but it also bespeaks of an infrequent tendency to dictate the course of matches as great bowlers do. Maybe Flintoff has a style which lets the batsmen leave the ball too much on their terms.
He has, perversely, disturbed the balance of the England side, especially if he has to continue to bowl so much and if those who decree such matters (the selectors? The coach and the captain? Who knows?) continue to insist that he bats at seven, not six.
As for 193 opposed to 200, Freddie took seven wickets in a match for the World XI against Australia in 2005. The International Cricket Council decided this was a Test match. They were confusing exhibition matches with Test matches, a difficult thing to do, though by the ICC's standards perfectly normal.
Flintoff's Test progress
First Test: wicket v South Africa (Trent Bridge) July '98 (J E Kallis c Stewart 47)
100th Test: wicket v South Africa (Cape Town) Jan '05 (H H Gibbs c GO Jones 24)
200th Test: wicket v South Africa (Edgbaston) July '08 (N D McKenzie lbw 72)
Average: 32.24 (ave excluding this Test)
England's leading Test wicket-takers
I T Botham (102 Tests) 383
R G D Willis (90) 325
F S Trueman (67) 307
D L Underwood (86) 297
J B Statham (70) 252
M J Hoggard (67) 248
A V Bedser (51) 236
A R Caddick (62) 234
D Gough (58) 229
S J Harmison (56) 208
A Flintoff (68) 202
J A Snow (49) 202