Flintoff's new-found fitness is key to beefing up fearsome reputation

'I want to bowl as much as I can - I want to be considered a genuine all-rounder and I'm keen to improve'
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Standing six feet five and 17 stone in his Y-fronts, Andrew Flintoff is not the kind of man you tear a strip off without a second thought, but that did not deter Lancashire's new coach, Bobby Simpson. Noticing that it was Flintoff's wont to take his breakfast with him on the team bus, Simpson, a man with a distaste for the slovenly, banned the practice forthwith.

Occasionally in sport, old habits have to be sacrificed in the pursuit of excellence and Flintoff, one of England's 12 centrally-contracted players, has accepted the change. "I tend to like my sleep so I usually get up just before the bus leaves and take some toast with me," Flintoff admitted. "But Bob's the boss, and I suppose I'll just have to get up a bit earlier."

If the episode appears mundane, it is because Flintoff's talent is as huge as the player himself. Yet when you have something as powerful and potentially classy as an Aston Martin, it is the fine tuning and detail which become important. Simpson knows this and has already adjusted other things too, notably Flintoff's batting stance, which is now more upright with feet closer together.

"It helps get him into position quicker," explained Simpson, who oversaw the renaissance of Australian cricket from its mid-1980s slump. "Otherwise I think he is technically good with excellent footwork though he must learn to stay within his talents. He hits the ball really strongly with the full face of the bat and is not afraid to use his feet to the spinners. That's unusual in an Englishman."

Few doubt that Flintoff - also known as "Freddy", due to the rough approximation of his surname with a famous cartoon caveman - has the potential to become England's most exciting cricketer since Ian Botham. Indeed, who can forget the pasting Flintoff dealt out to Shaun Pollock in the second Test at Port Elizabeth five months ago, when South Africa's opening bowler was treated like a dibbly-dobbler.

It might have been a turning point for both Flintoff and England had he managed to control the rushing adrenalin after striking nine fours. Instead, machismo got the better of him and Pollock splayed his stumps after Flintoff, on 42 from just 39 balls, aimed to deposit the bowler into some distant pasture behind the grandstand.

Yet although it contained Botham-esque elements, there are crucial differences between them. Botham began his Test career as quality bowler who improved his batting, his feats of derring-do with the bat helped by the safety net the ball gave him. Flintoff, by contrast, is a batsman who can do a job with the ball, which is not the same thing at all, especially in the mind's eye.

Karl Marx once ventured that the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself, while the reasonable one adapts himself to the world. On that reckoning, Botham is in the former bracket, Flintoff, the latter. Add to that Botham's keen knowledge of the street and an unquenchable thirst for more, and the differences, aside from both men being fine slip fielders, actually become vast.

Nevertheless, comparisons are inevitable and are part of a ongoing situation that has become an almost annual fixture in the media calendar since Botham's heyday in the 1980s. Flintoff is well aware of the perils of close association, but claims to be unaffected by them.

"When I was younger, 'Beefy' was someone I enjoyed watching, but so did everybody. As for trying to be him, I'm never going to be. I mean I'm just Fred and I'll be trying to get on with that. If I can do half the things he did that would be great. But I'd have to do it as me."

At Lancashire's behest, he dined with Botham a few years ago and chuckles at what he recalls being "a good night". Apparently the great man simply told him to be himself and to go out and play the way he plays. So far he has done just that, though with mixed results and has accumulated an alarming number of injuries.

Ever since he first began to flay bowling attacks to all parts of Lancashire in his teens, Flintoff's ability has never been in doubt. Where the question marks exist, are over discipline, and in particular his approach to fitness. In the early days, it was felt his musculature was not developed enough for his frame, but at 22, and five years as a professional sportsman behind him, that should no longer be the case.

Accusations of idleness are nothing new and two years ago when he made his debut, he ballooned to 19 stone, a situation that prompted a statement form Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. However, since breaking his foot while bowling in the Cape Town Test during early January, there are signs that the penny has finally dropped and following a holiday in Thailand with is girlfriend, he has been a regular gym-goer with his trainer Steve Hampson, the former Great Britain rugby league player.

"I feel I'm over that injury now. I felt it go when I was bowling at Newlands. Apparently it was a fracture of the meta-tarsal bone in my left foot. I've modified my action by opening up my front foot a bit more."

All his injuries - he spent most of the second day off the field at Fenner's with a stiff back - have come from bowling. It may be that his undeniable strength - in the hotel bar in Johannesburg he beat a huge brute by the name of Mungo at arm-wrestling - is not distributed well enough for the rigours of bowling, though he becomes tetchy when I suggest that the sensible option might be for him to give it up.

"I want to bowl as much as I can. I like bowling and I want to be considered a genuine all-rounder. At the moment my batting is better, but I'm keen to improve.

"For one thing I think I've got it in me to bowl quicker, though in the past my back problems have never allowed me to work much on my bowling. But now I should be able to practise regularly and hopefully learn to do more with the ball."

Off duty, he likes nothing more than a pint and a fag, which may explain why he only managed 10.5 on the bleep test for stamina - Graeme Hick managed over 14 - at England's recent get together.

In some ways he looks as you would imagine a young Jack Simmons - a Lancashire stalwart and current chairman of the club - must have. But if Simmons was all nous and trousers, Flintoff has yet to follow suit and you sense he likes his life to be kept simple.

He says he does not set specific goals but felt that he returned from South Africa a better player. "Apart from wanting to kick myself a couple of times over the way I got out, I reckon there was an improvement," he said. "When I made my debut, it was difficult, especially going into a dressing-room full of players you'd seen on telly when you were growing up. On tour you feel more of a side and now feel I should be there in my own right and good enough to perform."

He could become better still, though just how good will depend on whether his progress is hindered by the type of injuries that have befallen him in the past.

Having missed the triangular series in South Africa, he is for the moment looking no further than the early season glut of Benson and Hedges matches. "One-day cricket," he says with a grin. "Now, I really like that."