Thanks for the memories, Freddie…
But one glorious Ashes series five years ago and falling off a pedalo in 2007 does not make you an all-time great.
Freddie’s Dead – to quote Curtis Mayfield. Those were my first thoughts when I switched on Radio 5 Live last week to hear a stream of obituarial tributes to Andrew Flintoff.
As it transpired, Freddie wasn’t dead, he’d just announced his retirement from ‘all forms of cricket’. To digress for one moment, the phrase ‘all forms of cricket’ strikes me as a very state-of-the-art expression. In my day, ie, the past, players just retired. It was uncomplicated. When you retired you stopped playing, period. Nowadays, at the risk of sounding like Rick Wakeman on Grumpy Old Men, there are a bewildering variety of ‘forms of cricket’ from which to retire: Five-day, four-day, one-day Twenty-20. You can retire from one format but keep dabbling away in others. Last year, for example, Flintoff retired from one form of international cricket, ie, test matches, but insisted that he remained ‘fully committed’ to one-day and T20 internationals. Now he’s retired from the lot. The amount of journalistic labour time wasted on additional retirement retrospectives is incalculable.
Anyway, back to Freddie. His retirement wasn’t quite a tragedy – he’d been a retirement waiting to happen for the last few years – but, nonetheless, it was a sad day for sport. English cricket fans will always cherish those unforgettable moments when, as journalist Simon Barnes put it, Flintoff ‘touched greatness’. There was the 2005 Ashes series, the Christ-like, spread-arm wicket celebration, the pedalo incident, the famous Brett Lee consolation gesture (unarguably the greatest act of sportmanship in recorded history. Ever). And, er, that’s about it. Remind me again: apart from the summer of 2005, what exactly did Andrew Flintoff MBE ever do for us?
Flintoff’s retirement has sparked a fevered debate about where he ranks in the cricketing pantheon. Is he a true great or a ‘one hit wonder’ who inspired an Ashes victory but did sod all else? He was described in the Daily Mail as a ‘true English cricketing legend’. He is, without doubt, the most iconic English cricketer of his generation. He was adored by English cricket fans and feared by opponents. Cricket writer Alex Bowden is not afraid to use the G-word in relation to Flintoff. ‘The reason why Andrew Flintoff was a great cricketer was because he seemed purpose built to perform when it mattered to supporters’, wrote Bowden.
It’s probably true that Flintoff is a legend. But all that tells is that the bar of legend-hood ain’t set as high as it used to be. Rather it’s symptomatic of our contemporary British tendency to prematurely bestow greatness on our sports stars. So starved are we Brits of genuine sporting titans that we canonise talented sports people before they have racked up the records and medals worthy of the title ‘great’. Look how we doled out gongs to the English cricket team after one admittedly great Test series in 2005. They were still probably patting themselves on the back when they got right royally monstered by the Aussies the following year. Greatness my arse. Steven Gerrard has an MBE. For what? Flopping in successive international football tournaments.
Andrew Flintoff is the best-loved, most recognisable, most written-about, and most marketable cricketer of his time. He is cricket’s biggest celebrity. And yes he was instrumental in winning back the Ashes in 2005. But that doesn’t make him great. Cricket writer Andrew Miller’s unsentimental assessment of Flintoff’s career is, I’m afraid to say, right on the money. ‘His highlights reel will make glorious and wistful viewing in years to come, no doubt, but the bald truth is that in 11 years at the highest level, he was immense for precisely three’, wrote Miller. The statistics, I’m afraid, support his argument. I know statistics aren’t everything but 5 centuries and three 5-wicket hauls in a 79-match test career isn’t a great achievement by anyone’s standards. Flintoff is often heralded as the rightful heir to Ian Botham. Both swashbuckling all-rounders. Both big-hearted perfomers who embodied the English martial spirit. Both big personalities, big-boned and prone to off-field excess. But there the comparisons end. Botham hit 14 centuries and took 27 five wicket hauls in 102 test matches. As former England captain Nasser Hussain put it: ‘Flintoff will be remembered as an exceptional cricketer who had one great series, whereas Ian Botham, for instance, was a great cricketer full stop.’
Flintoff was a star who burned brightly but all too briefly. Nevertheless, he’ll always be adored by English cricket fans. They don’t care about the stats. Never mind, too, that Freddie had his flaws; fans loved him in spite of his off-field antics. This illuminates another aspect of our attitude to sporting heroism, namely a refreshingly lack of moralism about personal conduct. Just as Freddie’s foibles are overlooked, the public affection for Gazza remains undimmed despite his off-field problems.
We’re similarly forgiving about Flintoff’s drink-related lapses. A drunk Freddie reportedly urinated in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street during the Ashes victory reception. In the subsequent 2006/7 Ashes tour of Australia, Flintoff, who was England captain at the time, turned up ‘under the influence’ to fielding practice. In the 2007 World Cup an inebriated Flintoff reportedly had to be rescued after falling off a pedalo – the infamous ‘Fredalo incident’. None of these lapses has damaged Flintoff’s hero status amongst England fans – if anything they’ve enhanced his laddish allure.
Maybe sporting canonisation comes too easily these days. But, to stretch the religious metaphor, at least it isn’t conditional on monkish abstinence. We don’t care if our sporting heroes are partial to a beer or two. We don’t care if they piss on the Prime Minister’s geraniums. We’ll forgive them anything if, like Freddy Flintoff, they give us a rare taste of sporting glory.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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