James Lawton: What's this Ashes summer all about Freddie? You or the England team?
Flintoff's desire to play at The Oval is understandable but the wisdom of it is another matter
Tuesday 11 August 2009
This is not meant to challenge the heroic status of Andrew Flintoff but surely someone has to ask the leading question: what's it all about, Freddie?
This Ashes summer, I mean. Is it about England regaining the urn won so gloriously with the help of your inspiration in 2005, and then a year later squandered so grievously under your captaincy – or a series of Flintoff farewell concerts as stagy as any produced by the late Mr Frank Sinatra?
Right now there is a little confusion over the issue and it can hardly be said it is not self-generated.
The question can be asked without blurring for a second Flintoff's massive contribution to the one English victory of the current series at Lord's – or the bold splendour of the potentially vital knock of 74 in the third Test at Edgbaston. Where it is relevant, surely, is in the wake of his reaction to not being selected at Headingley and the statements of his agent, Chubby Chandler.
Based on that evidence, it seems that Flintoff was so angered by the English decision to go with medical evidence that a five-day Test match, perhaps even a two-and-a-half-day one, was beyond his physical powers that the moment Team England ceased to be Team Flintoff he left Headingley with rather less than a series of ringing endorsements for the pygmy figures who were required to labour in his absence.
The evidence for this conclusion is not exactly touched with ambiguity. Said Chandler, "I've seen a few disappointed sportsmen over the last few months but I've never seen anybody as low as Flintoff was on Thursday when he was told he would not be selected. He told them that he was fit enough to get through, that he felt no different to how he felt at Edgbaston and that he could get through and do his bit. They didn't want him."
"They didn't want him," is a phrase which might draw the inference that England's selectors, managers and captain, Andrew Strauss, had a less than perfect sense of his value to the team. This is palpably absurd. Flintoff's value to the team, emotionally, physically and, most of all, in terms of sheer bursting talent would surely not be lost on someone who might struggle to notice the difference between a long hop and a killer googly.
What England had to ask – and they would have been failing the remaining players as much as Flintoff had they not done so – was whether his selection would have been born of anything more than outright hope and speculation.
Anyone with one eye open at Edgbaston three days earlier would surely have had to accuse England of dereliction of duty had they not considered this vital issue. Even in the middle of his brilliant innings Flintoff looked like a man worn down to the last of his physical resources. When he bowled, wicketless, as Australia comfortably drew a veil over the possibility of defeat, the impression was even more pronounced. At one point he fell to the pitch, protecting his chronically injured knee and the simple act of regaining his feet seemed to be a considerable effort of will.
The more Chandler talked, the easier it was to sympathise with England's dilemma. The agent claimed, "He was prepared to do whatever it takes, to put whatever was needed to put into his knee." If a scrupulous trainer of horses was offered such advice he would surely not have dallied too long over his decision.
There is maybe an inevitable waft of cynicism in the air when we ponder the implications of another Chandler statement, the one that said, "The whole point of announcing his retirement when he did was to clear his head and do whatever was needed to be done to play the final Test matches of his career."
Yes, fine, but did this assume that England, so grateful to have his at times Herculean services, would suspend all the normal rules of selection, not to mention the obligation of care that normally attends the training and preparation of both human and equine sports stars? One racing insider was aghast yesterday at some of the comments from the Flintoff camp. "In any decent yard," he said, "what was being proposed for Freddie Flintoff just wouldn't, couldn't happen to a horse."
In the short break between Edgbaston and Headingley it was reasonable to take for granted Flintoff and his people's understanding of the basic point that no one, not even Andrew Flintoff or his injured team-mate and fellow superstar Kevin Pietersen, could ride indefinitely over the laws of nature. Indeed, many of Maradona's post-game agonies are attributed to years of being filled with painkillers, and then taking the hits to a body stripped of its ability to make proper reports to the brain.
It is also true that Flintoff's and Pietersen's participation in the Indian Premier League was the poorest of preparations for an Ashes series, and certainly in the case of Flintoff a less than convincing example of a man determined to "clear his head" for the final great challenge of his Test career.
After the implosion of the team in his absence, there will no doubt now be redoubled pressure to play Flintoff at The Oval next week. Heaven knows, the desire is understandable, but the wisdom of it is another matter.
Nor is there any question about the priority. It is to have a Flintoff still capable of the kind of effort he put in at Lord's, when he bowled with all the force and talent of a match-winning player. For this he needs a proper level of medical clearance and some convincing workouts. If these requirements are fulfilled, the nation will be right to be exhilarated by the prospect of one last statement from a hugely talented cricketer. Anything less, though, and the reaction has to be sharply different.
It has to be a lament for a failure of nerve and judgement. After Headingley, this surely is the last thing anyone wants.
Let Hawk-Eye put football's vital interests in focus
Despite an overwhelming desire in large tracts of the country to shoot the messenger, Sir Alex Ferguson was surely right to raise, before a ball is kicked seriously, the problem of refereeing inconsistency.
The trend disfigured so much of last season and re-emphasised the need for some kind of technological supervision of match officials. The incidents at Wembley on Sunday were not ideal examples of the appropriateness of such a procedure, but in the matter of penalties and offside decisions there is surely an ever-growing case for a referral system, albeit strictly rationed.
Without such safeguards we know as a matter of certainty that the complaints of Ferguson at the weekend will be routinely resurrected by every manager in the game. It is wearisome – and quite often it is the direct result of an absolute inability to see more than your own side of the argument.
However, football, as we are constantly told, is a multibillion pound industry. Surely it should thus fork out a little to protect the product.
Rugby's stars have failed in their first duty
When an iconic figure like Dean Richards, the ferocious England No 8 who was a cult hero long before becoming a highly successful coach, goes down, and no one can raise a whimper of protest, you know that rugby is indeed in big trouble.
But of course it is right that Harlequins wing Tom Williams is no longer the sole victim of the outrageous cheating in which he was cast as the central figure.
It is even better that at last the game appears to have a sense of the disastrous state of its current image. England's success in the campaign to host the 2015 World Cup was all very well, but much more important now is the vital cleansing of a game beset by eye-gouging, recreational drug abuse and appalling evidence of institutionalised cheating.
One lingering difficulty of the Harlequins case, though, is the impression that many in rugby see Williams as a victim as much as a culprit. There was a similar reaction when racing champion Lewis Hamilton was found guilty of lying to grand prix stewards. In both cases the teams of the rugby player and the racer carried heavy responsibility.
However, Hamilton didn't have to lie. Nor did Williams have to bite into the fake blood capsule, pull off the ruse and then wink as he left the field. The primary duty of any sportsman, professional or not, is surely plain enough. It is to be true to himself – and the game he purports to love.
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