They walked the line for Freddie
Passage Through India: As the key player he was fantastic, but as the figurehead Flintoff was awesome
According to the latest official Test ratings released on Friday, the second best all-rounder in the world is Andrew Flintoff. With due respect to the man in top spot, this is tosh.
Jacques Kallis is a cricketer of exceptional gifts, but nobody outside the room where the LG ICC rankings are compiled would seriously suggest that that he or anybody else is above Flintoff at present. The gap between the pair is only 13 points, but it remains almost enough to put the system on a charge under the Inter-national Cricket Council's code of conduct.
As batsman, bowler, fielder and captain in a series against India that finished 1-1 after a remarkable victory for England last week, Flintoff was extra-ordinary. On a personal level, as he was playing with his wife having given birth to their first son on the eve of the Second Test, he was monumental.
Rahul Dravid, India's captain, a man who exudes nobility, put it thus: "He truly deserved the man of the series award. Every time he went out to bat he scored runs, he was their best bowler through the series, he kept coming hard at us. He did a great job as captain in his first series and he proved he is the best all-rounder in the world at the moment." It might be worth sending that tribute to the ICC in Dubai to see if such a simple human acknowledgement can influence the software.
As he insisted, Flintoff, long since the nation's Fred, is looking forward to handing back the captaincy to Michael Vaughan, whose standing is still so high for his position to brook no debate. England are still Vaughan's team. But the long-term succession will have crossed Flintoff's mind.
Duncan Fletcher, the coach, has not quite managed to offer unequivocal support and has said more than once that Flintoff has an awful lot to shoulder already. Flintoff has never shown the coach anything other than deep respect in public, but they would not be natural bedfellows. The player is a man who takes as he finds and likes to find the best in people. The coach, while he has been as consistently genial as he has ever been on this tour (see what winning the Ashes can do), is innately wary.
Still, Fletcher's spontaneous reaction to the victory in Bombay and his hugging of Flintoff like a son (below) showed that there might after all be the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. There was some suspicion that Fletcher was having a direct hand in what decisions were being taken on the field. The only evidence for this was the constant flow of twelfth men with drinks and the fact that, especially in Bombay, Flintoff left the field occasionally. But he reacted too instinctively for such conjecture to be entirely born out.
Bowlers were changed quickly from end to end, he was not afraid to mess around with his fields, and while most of it was based on video evidence there was some extemporising, such as putting himself at silly point and trying to snare Dravid with a leg slip. Above all, he talked to his players. He talked to them at huddles, he talked to them on the field, always ready with a word.
John Abrahams was unsurprised. Abrahams was the coach of the Under-19 tour to Pakistan nine years ago, the first time Flintoff was captain of an England side. "It was easy to tell who was captain, both on and off the pitch," Abrahams recalled of the trip. "He recognised what it meant and he took on the responsibility. There were some senior players in that team who were already playing county cricket, but there was only one captain."
It will remain a concern that long-term adoption of the role would affect his precious form. But there was no sign of this in India. He had his slices of luck as a batsman but he played the spinners better than anybody else in his side. He would have bowled himself into the ground. He did. He scored 274 runs at 52, took 11 wickets at barely 30, and held three catches.
Throughout all this he remained utterly unchanged. His best pal was the best pal he has always had, Stephen Harmison. In the sparse space between matches they played a lot of darts. So did the other boys.
Because he was captain and because it was India, where they have an uncommon regard for cricket and cricketers, Flintoff tended to receive more invitations than normal. As yet another to dinner was delivered one day, to his consternation he noticed that it said "plus one" on the card.
He shouted to the darts-playing Harmison about likely attendance and was immediately told precisely what he could do. None of a captain's traditional aloofness then.
But nobody could have been sadder than Harmison when sore shins forced him to go home. Harmison is notoriously homesick on tour; he would have given a great deal to stay on this one for his friend.
It was fun playing under Fred. Famously by now, the last-day victory was inspired by the Johnny Cash song "Ring Of Fire", which was already repopularised recently in the biopic of his life, Walk The Line. Flintoff had other mischievous reasons for playing it, which he could not specifically outline in interviews.
Suffice to say that the Ring of Fire is a zone encircling the basin of the Pacific Ocean where the majority of the world's volcanic eruptions occur. Given where they were touring, the song had been waggishly adopted by England to denote volcanic eruptions of a bodily kind. How its final blast from the shabby dressing rooms at the Wankhede Stadium succeeded.
When last Fred Flintoff had departed the Wankhede arena in triumph he did so waving his shirt in the air after securing a series-levelling one-day victory. The image flashed round the world, and his dad told him off for being a silly bugger. This time he raised his arms aloft and led his team on a lap of honour. A simple way of putting it is that he had left Bombay a boy in 2002 and in 2006 came back a man.
Simply Fred: The hallmarks of a natural leader
HOGGARD'S BACKING: It was clear, both from his both body language and because he said so, that Matthew Hoggard relished having Flintoff as captain. He engaged with him, gossiped with him and advised him. Much of this was because Flintoff empathises directly with the fast bowlers' difficulties, and some was to do with the fact that Hoggard simply felt more comfortable under Flintoff.
SUPPORTING KIDS: Flintoff, á la Michael Vaughan, ensures that everybody was included. It was notable, to take just one example, how Alastair Cook, after his wonderful debut in Nagpur, made a point of praising Flintoff and the way he encourages those coming into the squad.
RELISHING RESPONSIBILITY: So obviously proud was Flintoff of being captain that he was determined not to mess it up. Instead of being weighed down by the cares of office, this enabled him to lead from the front. Being captain of England clearly mattered.
SHREWD PLOYS: Some observers suspected Fletcher was pulling the strings from the dressing room. But it was Flintoff who regularly shifted his field and changed his bowlers - a short, straight mid-on to Tendulkar, for instance, or regular bursts of only two overs.
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