Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Can Flintoff shoulder England’s burden?

Andrew Flintoff was simply phenomenal in last year’s Ashes. Scoring 402 runs while taking 24 wickets, he responded magnificently to a disastrous first Test. But can he do it again?

In 2005, Flintoff was astutely managed by sagacious skipper Michael Vaughan, who got the best out of him under pressure in his fundamentally relaxed environment. This series, however, it is Flintoff who is the main man. His ‘follow me’ style of captaincy has actually been criticised for being too ‘matey’, especially against Sri Lanka when he seemed incapable of refraining from sharing jokes with his friend Muttiah Muralitharan.

It proved a tremendous success in Mumbai but, in handing him so much responsibility, England risk total disintegration if their talisman under-performs.

In Duncan Fletcher, Andrew Strauss and perhaps even Michael Vaughan, Flintoff has an array of talented tacticians to whom he can turn for advice. It will be intriguing to see whether he over-bowls himself, as against Sri Lanka, and how perennial enigma Steve Harmison fares under him.

But, for all the talk of the captaincy clash between Messrs Ponting and Flintoff, the decisive factor in the fate of the urn may simply be which of the two stars performs better individually; neither are master tacticians but, if Flintoff is able to go close to repeating his 2005 ebullience, that should be sufficient to claim a draw.

The opinion of many seems to be that Flintoff is not a Test number six; his average of under 33 appears to back this view up. Yet, in his last 41 Tests, since the start of 2003, he has averaged 40 – which is certainly adequate for a number six. The chief criticism is that he has converted just four of his 24 scores over 50 into hundreds in this time. In India, his batting hinted at a new maturity; will it continue this way down under, or will we see hard-hitting 50s ended with soft dismissals, as is too often the case?

Despite reasonably encouraging endeavours with the ball in England’s warm-up games so far, it does not seem as if Flintoff will be able to bowl the gargantuan spells of last summer, such as his 17-over marathon at The Oval. Nonetheless, he has a major role to play as an impact bowler, especially to Adam Gilchrist. His pace, bounce and sheer accuracy mean that, in spite of not seemingly being at peak bowling condition, the notoriously astute bookies have installed him as favourite to be the side’s leading wicket-taker.

If England are to retain the Ashes, they will need Flintoff at his very best in at least one discipline. It is asking a lot of a man who has never played a Test for England down under before. But he is a superlative player who demands respect, admiration and – in the case of Australia – fear. Knowing so much relies on him, expect his batting to show the maturity it did in India, though it remains to be seen whether he can do this while retaining his inherent ability to dominate.

And, Flintoff will know that, if he can ensure the urn he did so much to win back is not relinquished at the first rematch, greatness, unquestionably, is his.

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