England’s agonising defeat to Sri Lanka highlighted the many frailties in their batting order. England’s opening pair is almost certainly the worst of the six major sides that remain in the tournament; and they were once more guilty of a middle-order collapse.
In 2004, Andrew Flintoff was England’s best one-day batsman; in an extraordinary summer, he scored three centuries and a 99, pulverising the opposition from number five with his fearless, clean-hitting stroke play.
What has happened since remains something of a mystery. Thanks to Kevin Pietersen’s rise, Flintoff is now more valued for his unerringly accurate bowling than destructive hitting. And he has batted accordingly; he has long since been guilty of getting out to injudicious shots when more selective accumulation is the order of the day.
In his last 30 ODIs, Flintoff has been dismissed 11 times between 20 and 50. While he would claim this is because he has gone in the quest for quick runs, the stats beg to differ. On only three occasions was he dismissed after the 40th over; clearly, he has been guilty of attempting to do too much too soon. Unlike the similarly belligerent hitter Pietersen, Flintoff plays with hard hands - a reason why he is so vulnerable to slower balls - so is incapable of scoring a risk-free five-an-over through placement and timing.
Paradoxically, the brilliant form of three years ago may be one of the problems. Flintoff obviously wants to recapture that form, and imagines himself plundering the bowling as he did then. But in ’04 he was batting better than ever before; he was playing at home; and the pitches were true. Perhaps most significantly, the bowling wasn’t very good: those four scores were made against a ragtag West Indian attack, a Bond-less New Zealand, an amiable Indian lineup, Harbhajan aside, and a Murali-less Sri Lanka.
Pietersen enjoyed a similar purple patch, against South Africa in early 2005, But, rather than seek to bat in that manner every game, he has matured into a reliable batsman, gaining nous and subtlety. He remains a phenomenally destructive player, but he is able to adapt his game to the situation.
In contrast, Flintoff has become something of a batting liability of late, averaging 21 in his last 19 ODIs, Ireland aside, and a paltry 16 in his last nine. The experiment to promote him in the ICC Champions Trophy, which was supposed to free up his batting, didn't work either.
In the short term, the best thing may be to promote the impressive Ravi Bopara – whose 52 displayed so many traits Flintoff’s recent batting has lacked - to six, and drop Flintoff to seven. From there, he would seldom have to rebuild or milk the bowling.
He would be of far more use in situations that simply demanded attack. Then he would become, once more, a batsman to be feared. Sadly, his ODI batting is currently a tangled fusion of over-complication (witness his tame dismissal against Ireland, running the ball down to third man) and a nostalgic attempt to replicate his brilliance of ’04.