The boy of summer

September 5 2004 / The Observer

Once in a generation, if we are lucky, a sportsman emerges from the ranks to become, through sheer exuberance of personality, a national hero, celebrated even by those who have little interest in or knowledge of sport. This summer was expected to have been an especially quiet one for English cricket. New Zealand and a moribund West Indies side were touring and Euro 2004 and the Olympics bookended the short, damp summer months. What chance for cricket, then, when there was so much noise elsewhere?

Well, every chance, as it turned out, because not only are England nowadays a rather accomplished Test side, they have in Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff perhaps the most exciting all-round player in world cricket. He is the first Englishman since Ian Botham whose very presence on a cricket field is received with restless anticipation; the first Englishman from whom, again and again, we expect the truly unexpected and who people will travel long distances to watch, helping to fill cricket grounds on the traditionally more quiet first and last days of a Test match.

Flintoff is a product of the Lancashire leagues, having scarcely played cricket at all while at school in Preston. He is a big, uncomplicated man, rooted in the soil of his native county: an honest yeoman. There is a wonderful candour about him, in personality and in action. He is no fanatic or monolith of motive. He has none of the narrow-eyed calculation of Steve Waugh, or the sullen insolence of Brian Lara. He plays the game as he sees it: with boundless enthusiasm and spontaneity. And he never seems to forget that cricket is merely a game, to be played hard but with the appropriate spirit of adventure. To watch him leave the field on the Friday afternoon of the Edgbaston Test having scored 167 against West Indies, his bat, held by the blade, raised in simple celebration, was one of the great moments of the sporting summer.

Flintoff has spoken of being given the ‘gift of cricket’, as if unable to explain or understand how he does what he does, and so well. Like anyone naturally talented in any discipline he played almost from the beginning as if the game were too easy for him - a knack, a gift. In June 1998, he scored 34 off one over from Alex Tudor of Surrey, during a county match. It would not be too long before he was a Test cricketer.

Yet by the time he made his England debut, against South Africa at Trent Bridge six weeks later, he was struggling - with injury, with his weight, with loss of form. Much of the exuberance that had marked him out as so remarkable in late adolescence seemed gone. His bowling was significantly reduced and his batting was too often erratic: one or two big hits and out. It was little surprise when he collected a pair and bowled indifferently in his second Test, at Headingley, and was then dropped. So began a long exile from the team.

Today, revitalised, he is a thrilling and disciplined batsman, an outstanding close catcher and hostile and accurate fast bowler who is admired even by the Australians, against whom he is yet to play a Test match. Perhaps we demand too much from him - a match-changing innings, a clatter of wickets - and he has spoken of the ‘pressure’ he sometimes feels to entertain.

Yet this summer he has played without pressure: he has been wilful, insouciant, daring. Above all, he has played with a smile and with a sense of fun. Evidently, he has been enjoying himself, and we have enjoyed watching him against West Indies: scoring that century at Edgbaston, bowling Lara for a duck at Old Trafford, hitting sixes and snaffling catches at Lord’s, striking boundaries round The Oval…