'I'm still only 26 and hopefully I can get better and better'

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The Independent Online

So many players have been hailed as the "New Ian Botham" that the epithet has long since been devalued. Andrew Flintoff's elevation as a genuine challenger to England's greatest all-rounder, however, was reaffirmed here yesterday.

So many players have been hailed as the "New Ian Botham" that the epithet has long since been devalued. Andrew Flintoff's elevation as a genuine challenger to England's greatest all-rounder, however, was reaffirmed here yesterday.

Flintoff's haul of seven sixes in his 167 lifted his career tally in Test matches to 41 sixes in 38 appearances so far. The Lancastrian powerhouse has some way to go to overtake world record holder Chris Cairns, whose 84 sixes came in just 61 matches, but given that the former champion of big hitters, Sir Viv Richards, took 121 Tests to clock up his score of 82, and Botham's 67 came in 108 appearances, Flintoff - only 26 and with a good deal of his career still ahead of him - may in time overtake them all.

Richards himself, currently a guest commentator with BBC's Test Match Special team, paid a fulsome tribute.

"When you see individuals at this level raising the standard like that it is fantastic," he said. "Who says cricket has lost its characters? Maybe previously Andrew has not lived up to his reputation but here is a player who has matured 100 per cent." Flintoff's score eclipsed his 160 against Yorkshire at Old Trafford in 1999 as his highest in first class cricket and overtook his 146-ball 142 against South Africa at Lord's last year as his biggest in Tests. The latter was in a losing cause, however, which seems unlikely here.

Clearly enjoying himself as he tore apart a woeful West Indies attack, Flintoff was richly amused when one of yesterday's sixes freakishly arrowed towards the top deck of the Ryder Stand at wide long on, where his father, Colin, attempted - and failed - to catch it.

"I should have caught it," said Flintoff Snr, who plays club cricket in Preston. "I saw it coming all the way, but it bounced out of my hand and ended up in the lap of Michael Vaughan's mum. With it being Andrew I should have realised how hard it was going."

The dominance of bat over ball will have brought a smile of quiet satisfaction to the Edgbaston groundsman, Steve Rouse, once regularly criticised over the behaviour of Test pitches here, usually after a pack of Caribbean speed merchants had been unleashed.

In 1995, when the first ball of the match, from Curtly Ambrose, boomed over the head of the wicketkeeper and touched the ground only once more before reaching the boundary, England lost by an innings by teatime on Saturday. It was an experience duplicated in 2000, against the same opponents.

Each of Rouse's last four Test wickets, however, has produced one first innings total of 500-plus.

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