Read this morning on cricinfo a piece in which Andrew Flintoff declares his undying love for Kevin Pietersen: okay it doesn’t exactly say that but does suggest that KP’s new, confident, winning mentality is helping him enjoy the game again.
I suspect that success breeds pleasure more, perhaps, than the other way around but there is no doubt that KP’s own outlook – in Flintoff’s words his confidence has started to “rub off on quite a few of the players” – has had an immediate impact; whether that feel-good factor can be maintained remains to be seen and a full audit on KP’s captaincy can not really be carried out for some months yet.
But that impact has definitely been no greater on any individual than Flintoff himself, especially with regards to his batting.
Personally, I had begun to give up all hope that we would ever again see the man who hit 402 runs in the 2005 Ashes series, and was mulling over the upsetting thought that if his body broke down again to prevent him bowling, we might even have seen the last of him in international colours.
For, as he made aborted attempts to get himself fit for county and country, there was nothing more depressing than hearing that he was playing for Lancashire – usually in the wintry extremes of Blackpool or somewhere similar – just as a batsman.
I believe the decline in his batting can be traced back to the fourth, and what proved to be the final, day of the decisive third Test against Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge in June 2006 – or at least that is when I first began to worry about it.
I could stay for only the first couple of hours before having to rush to catch the train back to London for an afternoon shift, so decided to make the most of my time, arriving early to watch the warm-ups and net practice.
I had positioned myself perfectly behind the England net close to the boundary boards, when Flintoff put on his pads. I was expecting to witness – after a short period to get his eye in and assure Duncan Fletcher he was taking it seriously – the England captain unleash a series of swashbuckling strokes to entertain the crowd that was growing quickly around me.
Instead, though, he seemed ill at ease. I couldn’t quite put my finger quite on what was wrong but he was unable to find any timing, or get his feet moving, and the ball was hitting the bat rather than the other way around. In all, it was one of the least impressive net sessions I had seen an international-class batsman have and it did not augur well for England’s hopes as they set about finishing off the Sri Lankan second innings and chasing a difficult target of 325.
Flintoff had already gone for one in the first innings – a soft dismissal as he leant back to drive Jayasuirya and edged to the keeper – and, despite leaving Nottingham with the England total on a healthy 80 for no wicket, I arrived at work some three hours later to find we had crumbled to 125 for six.
I resignedly looked for Flintoff’s contribution and was not entirely surprised to find that he had lasted only four balls against Muralitharan and had gone to a rather limp forward push that had barely troubled Dilshan at short leg.
Injury then intervened and Flintoff did not play another Test until he had been restored to the England captaincy for the Ashes series in Australia. That tour produced only 254 runs from his bat – at an average of 28 – and his two decent scores, a fifty in a lost cause at the Waca and 89 in the first innings in Sydney were memorable only for the somewhat desperate aerial attacking shots that he turns to when he is hopelessly outclassed outside the off stump.
In the World Cup that followed, he looked even uneasier, unable to play his natural attacking game with confidence, and contributed only 92 runs from seven innings, the nadir coming when he was bowled by the Bangladeshi left-arm spinner Mohammed Rafique in Barbados. I can remember almost falling off my sofa with apoplexy when his wicket fell. It was one of the most appalling shots you can imagine from an international player.
To confirm my view of it now, I looked up the cricinfo commentary for the dismissal, and sure enough: “Flintoff barely moves his feet and is completely undone by the arm ball and bowled neck and crop. A great player but he looked as impotent as a club No 11 there”.
Further injury followed, but even when Flintoff returned to the England team this season for the second Test against South Africa, his batting limitations were still on display.
Few observers – and few inside the set-up – felt comfortable with him at No 6, even to the point that Tim Ambrose was promoted above him. That experiment was thankfully short-lived but it indicated how Flintoff’s stock as a batsman had fallen.
Come the Oval, however, and the appointment of KP, Flintoff was back at No 6. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with him there – and his first innings score did nothing to persuade a rethink, but then came Pietersen’s master-stroke in the one-dayers.
Rather than putting him at No 7 or No 6, he promoted him to No 5. It seemed foolhardy, but curiously, by burdening Flintoff with more batting responsibility and by showing his confidence in his ability, he got the best out of the Freeman of Preston.
Superb innings followed, with Flintoff’s get-out-of-jail shots in the air through mid-wicket and mid-on substituted by confident, well-timed and well-placed efforts elsewhere. While he was still able to draw on his massive strength when required, he showed an ability to build an innings – albeit a quick one – that, to me, had been missing for more than two years.
It is a shame that Flintoff’s improved form – and that indeed of the whole one-day side – will not be put further to the test in the Champions Trophy, but if KP has done enough to restore the confidence to his premier all-rounder’s batting, he has already achieved something of lasting value.