Freddie: Reluctant Predator, Helpless Hero

Barring Douglas Jardine, no cricketer from the bygone era has fascinated me as much as Fred Trueman. Peerless as he was in his times, he possessed that very rare quality:  menace. While Lillee-Thomson, Holding-Roberts and Wasim-Waqar chased like a pack of hounds, Trueman was a true Lion. Through him, I began to appreciate that beastly bit of the gentleman’s game: fast bowling. Cricket, they say, resembles life very closely. But could you define life without the shadow of death? However out-of-focus it may seem to be, that blurred bit of death far away in the lurking, is crucial to the discipline of what we call life.

Speaking of resemblance with life on the cricket field, those dark shades of death are provided by the predators who mix deadly speed with the mysteries of nature, such as humidity, wind and ball-type to cast spells of fear and hostility. Let it not fool you that they are dressed in all-whites, these men are entrusted with balancing the ecology of the cricket world. They threaten survival and are known to be unrelenting against anything casual. They believe in the form and appreciate the formal, cautious and alert; everything else is punished. They safeguard the natural selection process ‘testing’ one and all, zooming into sieve-like weaknesses and justifying the aura of the truly greats. Legendary Sydney Barnes picked Victor Trumper out of the ordinary whereas fearsome Malcolm Marshall held high regards for Boycott’s courage and technical proficiency.

Andrew Flintoff, about to play his last Test at Oval, was one of the very few predators of his times. He was no Trueman or Lillee, let’s face it, but a predator nonetheless. He shall be remembered for his spell at Edgbaston to Ricky Ponting which the aussie called ‘best sequence of deliveries I’ve ever faced’, and to Kallis on his return to Test Cricket after a long injury. They were two of the most fascinating spells of the modern times, delivered to two of the most accomplished batsmen. He shall be remembered for his 18 over spell at Oval 2005 and for his series leveling toils in Mumbai as a captain apart from his Ashes heroics that made him a local hero.

Anyone who has followed Fred’s Cricket closely and seen him bowl his heart out the world over knows how under-rewarded he has been. For every scalp of his he bowled a few exceptional overs. You may argue that it happens to every bowler in the game and it evens out over a long career but we know it hasn’t evened out for Freddie. Every time he held the red ball in his big hands, he pulled the people to the edge of their seats. They may not have been assured of a wicket but they knew Flintoff  would make them all sweat for their runs. In the decade when English Cricket was falling apart, Freddie meant hope. He tested one and all. Be it on dead pitches or the liveliest of them, he gave it his all. It’d be difficult to find a batsman of our times whom Flintoff didn’t give a working over. The most prolific and the most talented both were forced to admit the genius of Freddie. And what’s more, he made them enjoy it. He would beat the outside edge, stop and stare back. And then all of a sudden, he’d break into a smile, the most disarming of smiles from a fast bowler. He lacked neither belief, nor effort; yet he refused to misbehave. From a beer guzzling boy to the go-to Man of English attack, Flintoff’s was an inspirational march. He matured on responsibility, relished the improvements he made and pushed himself to go the extra yard.

Flintoff wasn’t a born wizard. He discovered the force of nature he was gifted with bit-by-bit and it spurred him on. Due to his hit-the-deck style as against England’s routine  big swinging new ball men, he remained their first change man. But his was the most welcome of changes. We waited for him to steam in with hope in his hands and he obliged with a wicket just to prove us right. He roared with arms spread and declared himself on the big stage match after match. It was the roar of a predator, the roar of a man who discovered himself on the pitch. While Freddie was still a reluctant fat boy, Test Cricket believed in him. The game entrusted him with responsibility and waited on the sidelines to let the magic of Freddie unravel itself. And Freddie reciprocated; he had to.

Ashes 2005 marked his completed transformation to an English Hero. It was an 80s style fast bowling all-rounder’s thunderous blow to the invincibility of Aussie dominance. He exposed the knights, ripped open the chinks in their armours and swatted like a revolving door whoever tried to stop him. That 18 over spell he bowled at Oval showed the world how badly he wanted the Ashes. By the time he finished, he had turned the clock back. Aussies were vulnerable, other teams the world over were licking their lips, and the crown lay rightfully on the head of a fast bowler. Trueman would’ve been happy.

But Flintoff was no Trueman. He was born in an era of Aussie dominance and being an Englishman, he couldn’t put so much premium on winning. Though he believed he was good enough for any challenge, failure wasn’t unacceptable to him. For him it was too integral a part of life to lose sleep over. Which is why, though he kept beating the outside edges and deceived one and all with his bouncers as well as yorkers, he never took as many wickets as he should have. Perhaps it was fitting for his attitude. Perhaps we’d have to concede he rarely wanted them so badly. Though he was still the man who troubled the batsmen of his era most, he didn’t get them out as often as someone else in his place would have. He relished the foreplay so much that, more often than not, the intercourse wouldn’t take place. Whatever Freddie did, that shadow of reluctance never left him.

However, that shadow rendered him an inexplicable aura, a depth of character, a certain kind of invincibility and an insane amount of affection from the world over. McGrath never had it though he had 500-plus wickets; Kallis never had it though he had more wickets and 10000-plus runs; his own teammate Pietersen never had it despite his excellent returns. Flintoff is an unlikely Hero for the numbers that show in front of his name. Which is why, hundreds have written about him trying to unravel his magic figure however unsubstantiated by his record. It is a case in point that records don’t make a legend, though they often try to defy one, without much success. They will try to erase Freddie’s too; and they shall fail. Every time a fast bowler bowls his heart out to play the predator, he performs a divine duty. He is bound to be blessed in return. Freddie’s legend is his blessing, it’s his gift. In his story, there lies the victory of Test Cricket and the victory of man, one inspiring another, back and forth. And in his smile, there’s always a bit of divine.

Tommorrow, Freddie shall play his last Test. He’ll make a few runs and take a few wickets, alright. He may or may not help England retain the Ashes, we know he’ll give it all he has. He shall struggle with injury and his own reluctance to come out on top. Then, it is upon the future to decide whether Oval 2009 shall mark the best of Freddie. We hope he will turn the clock back once again, we all hope so. Hope. With Flintoff, you always had hope, you always have hope. That’s what he meant to us; that’s what he means to us.

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7 thoughts on “Freddie: Reluctant Predator, Helpless Hero”

  1. “Mind the windows, Tinu”

    :))

    Perhaps, many years down the line, you would look back at this and say: I was too moved and I was young and silly in those good old days. And I would tell you that your work then was more full of love and hope than your recent work. Remember lyrical and critical essays?

    About his smile, there is no divinity without mischief or suffering. And mischief is really a bowler’s weapon. They are MEANT to test; they are meant to make the batsmen suffer. It’s benign of Freddie to make it seem compassionate to the batsmen, humourously. You have recorded that nobility.

    We should’ve liked (read:would like) to see Sir Frederick Flintoff. Although titles do not mean much standalone, but you get my drift. Thanks to Flintoff, cricket remains a gentleman’s game, after all.

  2. He relished the foreplay so much that, more often than not, the intercourse wouldn’t take place.

    I missed this line in the first reading!!! Ha ha!!! This is the punchline!

  3. Like most of the articles written about the English cricket, especially the face of the English cricket – Flintoff, I enjoyed yours as well. Well written post indeed.

    Don’t mind my playing a spoilsport. But I have some comments to make here. I can not help this sneaking feeling that English cricket is played best on paper. To me, the English cricket is less of sports and more of rhetoric, and that’s why it fascinates those whose profession involves the tricks of language. I don’t know about 1909, but in 2009, we find the best of their cricketers playing not with bat, but with pen. Their arena is not the field, but the commentary box. And we Indians, the condemned admirer of the wallowed language, can not help but wonder the art of making castles in air. We might miss an elegant placement of ball, but we can not miss an elegant placement of words. And if, God forbid, our involvement and understanding of a sport is found to be predominantly linguistic, we must start to correct our cricket. Because above and before anything, cricket is neither statistics nor language, it’s a sport.

    Truly, an Englishman can surely teach you how to win on paper despite losing on ground. For me, it’s not hard to understand why even a McGrath or a Kallis could not manage to achieve what a Flintoff did, despite everything. After all, the latter had a ready fleet of professional poets and lawyers, who fought his case with both – poetic appeal and court-room drama.

    I will remember Flintoff for his hype and his smile. I will admire him for his labored spells followed by a refreshing smile. I will detest him for something he has not done – for being overrated. For whatever he was, he was grossly overrated.

  4. Fair enough! Just as fair as the Ashes 09 result, I reckon.

    As for Flintoff, those who rate him highly may have a problem with your judgement, I just love him. Let me concede I just made up the reasons as to why. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’d have loved him helplessly even if he took no five-for at Lord’s. For me, he was one of the most delightful sights of world cricket. So long as I am concerned, it serves me quite right. Nobody can play a spoilsport there.

    As for overrated, I feel all great men are. The only thing is, perhaps they deserve it; at least they earn those exaggerations. From Bradman to Bhimsen Joshi to Shakespeare, aren’t they all grossly overrated? Isn’t it a blessing to humankind that we can use the pen and paper to enlarge the foot-prints on our memory?

    And even if I draw a bigger line with a smaller pencil, I refuse to concede it was my fault 🙂

  5. Serve and Volley can be played better with pen-and-paper than with a raquet and a tennis ball. Try to read the comments in this light, without any self consciousness.

    Also, unconditional love is causeless. The mind may need reasons, not the foolish but brave heart. And expression of love is an art in itself. And, like a great man says, Art does not tolerate Reason. Therefore… please tolerate this ranting.

    As far as star-ratings and greatness is concerned, Allah is the greatest. Baki sab vaad-vivaad hai. Like Alexander Pope said: The artist and the critic, both, from heaven derive their light.

  6. I have heard about this gentleman politician who used to stand up and shout in every gathering, every meeting, every forum he attended – “People want peace”.

    “The artist and the critic, both, from heaven derive their light.”

    Well!

    To most, Camus is to art what Gandhi is to politics – a disposable cliché. Pretty handy stuff isn’t? It was artful as well as reasonable on part of Art not to tolerate Reason. Though I think that it was Reasoning not Reason Art found intolerable. I don’t know much ABOUT Art anyway, but it seems that even the pedestrian reason has mastered the art of not tolerating Reason.

  7. Abhishek*

    I am sorry I started on this. But since I have started, I will complete. Otherwise, I will suffer…

    I feel you are an artwork in yourself, without any self-consciousness, which is why you can be trusted. Just like Freddie, MBE, is an artwork in himself — jumping on the field, pausing to celebrate, crying in hidden chambers, laughing at incompetence, smiling at tiredness, just giving love, trying not to impede the flow of life with the painful consciousness of being.

    This is what is being exalted at this point in time, here in this post I think, where thought is reflecting upon itself, and captured. This process is, in a word, art.

    If I were to simplify this whole monologue, I would say this work is a sketch of Freddie, not true to life as one may know it, but true nonetheless. The purpose is not to portray Fredie as he might be in some reality, but to portray a higher reality. With some harshness, I can say Freddie is a disposable means to the end of the artist. But it is not so… in, ah, reality.

    This frontier in the mind which convinces itself of truth — the limit of intelligence — does not recognize Reason (not so much condemn it), because to have arrived at this point, reason must have already been crossed, conquered and fulfilled; which is to say that the praise, or condemnation, is unconditional in itself, and for its own joy.

    Please correct me if I am mistaken or, what is worse, ambiguous; otherwise I will continue to abide in this ecstasy.

    Like Camus himself says, every famous man knows his name will be dust in ten thousand years. The name of Camus may be disposable, but those who may not try to experience the wisdom behind his words, might be injuring themselves. Having experienced, words are disposable. But ethic is not. And truth is an ethic in art. And you are an artwork.

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