The Glorious Uncertainty of the Unrefined Talent

At his best, Andrew Flintoff was the most captivating English cricketer of his generation, and, for a short period around the summer of 2005, he was one of the finest players in the world.

As he fought a succession of injuries there was a sense that his career was slipping away long before it formally came to an end in September 2010.

When his retirement was announced I wrote this.

My first clear memory of Andrew Flintoff dates back to a Test match between England and India at Lord’s in 1996.  David Lloyd, then the England coach, had invited the likely lad from Lancashire to act as his country’s Twelfth Man.  I stood and watched for a while at the gap between the Allen Stand and the pavilion and soon became aware of a looming presence next to me, blotting out the light.  I’d seen his picture so knew when I looked up that I was literally being overshadowed by Andrew Flintoff.  Despite regular exposure to the behemoths turned out by the professional Rugby Union academies, he remains one of the biggest eighteen year-olds I’ve ever seen.

Just two years later he was in the England side; raw, over-promoted, destined to take a very long time to rise and an equally long one to fall.  But for a relatively short time his best was as good as anyone’s around, and my favourite memories all come from that brief heyday between 2003 and 2006: Dispatching South Africa in an ODI uniform at Edgbaston in partnership with Michael Vaughan, July 2003, one sublime cover-drive instantly awakening memories of Ian Botham; raging against the dying of the light at Lord’s and The Oval, same summer; repeatedly turning games in partnership with Geraint Jones, a contrasting man if ever there was, but someone he always seemed to bat well with, in 2004 and 2005; that over to Ponting and a wealth of other moments from the summer the Ashes came back.

Other than in one specific area of his game – his bowling in one-day cricket – Andrew Flintoff wasn’t a truly great cricketer.  Simply a very good one whose greatest individual Test series happened to coincide with what was perhaps the greatest Test series of all.  But, to the average English cricket follower, his huge popularity owed far more to his image as an outwardly unsophisticated, often gauche everyman who embodied and fulfilled people’s hopes while retaining an endearing sense of vulnerability.  The British tend to be wary of self-conscious sporting excellence, preferring those who succeed in spite of themselves and who routinely appear to be only a step away from failure.  The glorious uncertainty of the unrefined talent.

One image to leave: It is September 2003.  Makhaya Ntini bowls, and the coiled, vengeful power of Flintoff’s drive lofts the ball upwards, seemingly destined for space.  It only makes it as far as the upper tier of the Oval pavilion but no matter.  This is something we’ve waited since 1985 to see.  It is special, he is special, and we want more.

Flintoff’s future also has more than a tinge of uncertainty about it.  But he, and we, will always have his past.

Different Shades of Green, 19th September 2010

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