Saturday, 19 April 2008

A long road back for Flintoff

Despite what the media would have you believe, there was more to the Surrey-Lancashire game than the state of Mr Flintoff.

The relentless talk of Andrew Flintoff's comeback is tedious in the extreme. It is a sad indictment of the media's lack of regard for county cricket that, even in a match in which he has been anonymous, taking one wicket and scoring 23, he has dominated the headlines. The story of the first day was not Lancashire twice missing Mark Ramprakash before he marched to his third consecutive championship hundred (all against Lancs). Of course it wasn't. Freddie bowled 10.3 overs on the opening day of his comeback. He took 1-26. Stop the press.

The man himself: Andrew Flintoff during his 28 overs.

The obsession with Flintoff can't be doing him or his side any good. With all the talk over this game as the first step on the road to an England return, a part of him can't help but regard it more about him than his county, no matter how wholehearted a cricketer he is. Lancs must also grow tired, much like the rest of us, that all questions lead to Fred. Neither he nor his team-mates will be enjoying the disproportionate attention he is receiving for what have been less-than-stellar deeds. Frankly, he needs at least six weeks of hard, competitive cricket for Lancashire before he can be considered seriously for England again; it would be a huge mistake to recall him on reputation alone. That doesn't mean surviving unscathed, it means making decisive contributions - scoring centuries and taking five-fors. There were tentative signs of encouragement, certainly, as he kept going admirably on a flat track, but nowhere near enough to justify the hype.

Inevitably he has totally overshadowed the noteworthy displays in the match: above all a trio of centuries from Surrey's powerful middle-order. Ramprakash was actually below his usual imperious best, but he has been so phenomenal over the past two years that, visibly, opponents are in awe of him. Bowlers often bowl worse to him than they do to other batsmen; fielders react over-eagerly to any opportunities, such is the value they put on his wicket. So, just as in the last game of last season, Lancs missed out on two chances - this time a catch and a run-out - before he had made even 20. Try telling them there is one - let alone six - batsmen in England who are better. Mark Butcher was also supremely attractive driving through the off-side in putting on a double century stand with Ramprakash.

Never mind the's Freddie?

But the most noteworthy knock in the context of Surrey's season was surely Usman Afzaal's debut hundred. Butcher has spoken about providing an environment for this sometimes mercurial talent to flourish and, if this was any indicator, they have certainly done so. Pulling with authority and great power against Sajid Mahmood, Afzaal played Gary Keedy's left-arm spin exquisitely, using his feet and the aerial route. On the basis of this serene and aesthetically-pleasing knock, Afzaal will score many runs at The Oval this season. Thanks to Ali Brown's belligerent 74*, Surrey have already improved in one shocking statistic from last season, when they registered just a solitary score in excess of 70 from any player batting outside the top four, showing the extent of their reliance on Ramprakash.

Afzaal driving during his debut hundred

See, there was plenty to talk about: and that's before we even get started on Lancashire returning at the first opportunity to where they missed out on the championship at the end of last year's epic race. On this evidence they have much work to do if they are get that close again: their fielding was shoddy; their bowling lacked control, save for Flintoff, let alone any great threat; and their batting has been too loose, although the weather has been such that a draw was always the overwhelming favourite.

But the story was all about how Freddie was doing, with the score barely deemed relevant. Maybe those who are infuriated by a non-performance covering the first half of every match report are missing the point. Who needs runs or wickets for intrigue when we've got Freddie's ankle to worry about?


Colin Crew said...

I couldn't agree more re: Flintoff. The guy is 30 now with a long history of injuries, operations and loss of condition. Everyone wants him back and firing for England but look what has happened previously when he has been rushed back...?

I certainly hope Flintoff can hit the heights with England again but even if he does, it is hard to see him playing for more than a couple more seasons with the problems he has had and the type of player he has become, i.e. a fast-bowling all-rounder. We need to be nurturing the next potential all-round talents like Adil Rashid and Luke Wright in preperation for the day when we can no longer look to Flintoff.

I genuinely wish him all the best and hope the England management can excercise some sense concerning his rehabilitation and in doing so, prolong his career for as long as possible.

Brian Carpenter said...

Well said, Tim. The reporting - even among the broadsheets - is a by-product of the tabloid approach to cricket coverage which deems any match which isn't a Test or ODI involving England (and usually Australia) or the IPL, to be unworthy of interest for its own sake. The only coverage worth giving such games, then, is personality-driven, and the biggest personality in English cricket remains Flintoff, even if he's been in decline for the last couple of years, will almost certainly never get back to where he was and will ultimately judged quite harshly by history.

If I was an England selector I wouldn't dream of involving him with the side until he had played a series of perhaps half a dozen consecutive Championship games for Lancs, bowling an average of 30+ overs in each, taking some regular wickets and scoring some runs. Then I might look at him for the SA series - to me what he did in 2005 is now all but irrelevant, apart from as an indicator of his basic ability.

Jrod said...

He has a good career ahead of him in the ICL, they don't mind injured basket cases, see Shane Bond.

allrounder said...

Ah, Tim... Your admirable affection for the merits of Mark Ramprakash's game cloud your view a little, non? Of course, the circus-like attendance on Flintoff's every move devalues the wider contest - but journalism is a tawdry business, after all.

Flintoff is yet to become yesterday's man - and I'm sure we're all hoping to see Fred-propelled fireworks again in the near future. The very fact he is playing cricket again is noteworthy, and while I'm certainly also interested in Usman Afzaal's potential renaissance, you can't really blame people for focusing on Flintoff. Besides, that's where the likes of Third-umpire comes into its own - dedicated reports for committed enthusiasts.

Now, were Surrey really that much better than last season's runners-up, or was April ring rust on Lancashire's part more to blame...?

Tim said...

Cheers for the comments all.

I certainly would like Flintoff back fit and firing in the England side (even if he has done nothing for two years to remotely suggest he is a good Test number 6) - my piece was more about how frustrating it is that other performances get less credit than they otherwise would because of his presence! Agree that the SA series (or maybe the 3rd Test against NZ if we are 2-0 up) is the earliest he should play for England again.

Interesting thoughts allrounder (hope it didn't seem like I have any dislike for Flintoff). Lancs' bowling really didn't look great,though their middle-order still looks imperious. We'll have to wait and see, naturally!

Rob said...

An interesting article. I think we can forgive a bit of Ramps bias -- after all the guy cannot get a break with England.

allrounder said...

Not at all, Tim - just advocating for the Devil, as it were. Good piece, I thought, and nice pics. Dig cam?

Chrispy said...

And spin was Fred's undoing again, now that rings a bell!! Interesting to see that Fletcher says he doesn't warrant number six in the batting order in Tests. His form (when he has played) certainly matches with that comment. Six in ODI's is possibly even too high at the moment and unless he can get back to batting at 6/7 well, then I can't see him getting in the side as part of a three man seam attack, with his constant injury worries. Let's hope for the best, but plan for the worst and take good looks at Wright and Rashid.

Well done Ramps!