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Flintoff and Botham were good, but were they great?
Derek Pringle, David Capel and Phil DeFreitas were hailed as potential successors while the all-rounder was still playing in the 1980s. The unsought weight of expectation then fell on Chris Lewis and Dominic Cork.
Although Pringle and DeFreitas developed into decent international bowlers and Cork was a better player than either, the comparisons were invalid and unfair.
The quest by public and media persisted, culminating in the initially unlikely figure of Andrew Flintoff, who lumbered on to the international scene overweight and underprepared in 1998.
To his credit Flintoff absorbed harsh words from people whose opinion he respected, trimmed down, trained hard and became an essential component of the England side.
For two glorious years, in 2004 and the transcendent Ashes series of the following English season, Flintoff matched Botham at his best, scoring 1,607 runs at 40.16 and capturing 111 wickets at 24.94.
As a commanding middle-order batsman and intimidating fast bowler, Flintoff would have held a spot in a strong England side with distinction in either role.
And yet when Flintoff retired after England’s triumphal Ashes win last month, his battered body no longer able to stand up to the demands of five-day cricket, his overall figures were not those of an exceptional performer. In 79 tests he averaged 31.77 with the bat and conceded 32.78 with the ball compared to Botham’s 33.54 with the bat and 28.40 with the ball.
One rough measure of a true all-rounder is a player who averages more than 30 with the bat and less than 30 with the ball. Then the gap between batting and bowling averages comes into play. By the latter measure, Flintoff has a minus figure of 1.01 compared to Botham’s plus 5.14.
As CLR James wrote when comparing Bradman’s performances on bad pitches to the superior prowess in similar conditions of Jamaican George Headley, a monument need not be built on statistics. Over a test career, though, they do provide a yardstick by which players of different eras can be compared in the form of the game which all cricketers agreed is the ultimate challenge.
Botham is indelibly linked in the English popular imagination with the 1981 Ashes series. His impact was magnified by the gloom pervading the nation before the sun finally broke over an England mired in recession and plagued by inner city riots.
To this day, to the exasperation of Australians visitors, a rain break during an Ashes test in England is the signal for another television replay of Botham’s heroics in the 1981 Headingley test.
But Botham’s overall figures are nothing startling.
Botham’s 15-year test career divides conveniently into two sectors; the five years dating from his debut in 1977 and the 10 starting with the 1982-3 Ashes series in Australia.
During the first Botham averaged 37.92 with the bat with 11 centuries and took 249 wickets at 23.32. The second yielded a batting average of 29.00 while his wickets cost 37.84.
The young Botham before injury, increased weight and the distractions of a celebrity lifestyle took their toll was a splendid player whose figures are remarkably similar to Keith Miller and Imran Khan, two other glamorous fast bowling all-rounders.
From 1982-3 onwards Botham was still capable of sporadic brilliance but not of consistent excellence.
England’s best all-round cricketer, with a respectful nod in the direction of Wilfred Rhodes, the doyen of left-arm orthodox spin who started his test career batting at number 11 and worked his way up to number one, was South African-born Tony Greig.
Greig averaged a healthy 40.43 with the bat and took 141 wickets at 32.20 mostly at medium-pace. He scored test centuries in Australia against the pace and fury of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, in India against the wiles of Bishen Bedi and in the Caribbean against the menace of Andy Roberts.
His bowling figures also included 13 wickets with off-spin delivered from a great height to win a test in West Indies.
As a bold, brash, attacking captain Greig revived an England side, who had been blitzed by Lillee and Thomson in Australia, winning a series in India and extending the Australians to the limit in the centenary test.
He lost the England captaincy because of his active role in setting up the Packer rebel series and remained in Australia when peace was declared with the establishment, confirming the prejudices of those who thought a South African should never have captained England in the first place.
If Botham has been unduly lionised, Greig has been unfairly overlooked.
Cricket is, of course, more than just statistics as England proved this year when they trailed Australia in just about every conceivable individual and team measure but still won back the Ashes.
Richard Hadlee, a player of comparable status to Imran in New Zealand, was obsessive about statistical goals but still reckoned match-winning performances were the true mark of an all-rounder.
Botham scored 14 test centuries and captured five wickets in an innings 27 times and even in decline he could still win test matches.
On his final tour of Australia in 1986/7 he scored a swaggering century in Brisbane and, bowling barely medium-pace, took five wickets in an innings in Melbourne. England won both matches and took the series 2-1.
By the end of this year’s Ashes series, Flintoff was hobbling like an old man.
He still rolled back the years to win the Lord’s test with a ferocious display of high-class fast bowling and waited until the Oval before effecting his first runout in a test. Flintoff hurled down the stumps with captain Ricky Ponting short of his ground in Australia’s second innings when the Australians sensed they had an outside chance of completing a record run chase.
“I’ve never achieved greatness,” Flintoff reflected the day after England won the Ashes. “The Bothams, the (Garfield) Sobers, Imran Khans and (Sachin) Tendulkars achieved greatness test after test after test. But I’ve been in a team that has performed well and I’m sat here feeling proud.”
Flintoff was too modest. Overall he was not a great cricketer. But he won matches and for two heady seasons in the prime of his sporting life he at the very least touched greatness.
PHOTO: Andrew Flintoff celebrates taking the wicket of Ricky Ponting of Australia with a runout throw during the fifth Ashes test at The Oval in London, August 23, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville