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.