Monday, November 12, 2007

Andrew Flintoff's challenge

The conspiracy of silence didn’t help Fred

It’s only a little more than two years ago but it might as well be seen on archive film in flickering black and white so distant does it seem. The six summer weeks when England regained The Ashes – that glorious carnival of cricket when we fought back from the pain of humiliation at Lord’s to out-play and out-think the invincible Aussies over the next four Tests. And it all began at Edgbaston when Ricky Ponting, thinking that after Lord’s we were on the run and that a series whitewash was on the cards, put us in after winning the toss. And we scored 407 runs on the first day at 5 runs an over and Freddie hit a glorious 68 with six fours and five sixes and then hit 73 in the second innings and took 3/52 in the Australian First Innings and 4/79 – including one of the finest overs ever bowled in any form of the game to Ponting (caught behind for a duck). Fred’s finest hour – an all-round performance perhaps unequalled in Test cricket history. And he added unselfconsciously to his stature by his spontaneous action at the moment of victory when he consoled the forlorn Brett Lee – the “image of the summer” Richie Benaud called it. When the series was over, and The Ashes had been won, Andrew Flintoff had 402 runs and 24 wickets to his name and was a national hero and even in Australia, where the bashing of any Pom is a badge of honour, Fred was held in the highest esteem. He was even offered honorary Australian citizenship at the high profile “Lindsay Hassett Club” lunch in October 2005 where he shared the speaking honours with Shane Warne.

Peter Roebuck, the curmudgeonly Anglo-Australian writer on cricket, once said that “Cricket is a game played in the mind. Give a man confidence and he will walk among kings. Drag him down and he will scurry among crabs.” For a couple of glorious months Freddie Flintoff had walked among the kings - so was it inevitable that from these heights the only way was down? Maybe it was because, despite his hulking frame, Fred is fragile at the edges. Fragile from his proneness to physical injury and fragile from, not to put it too unkindly, his love of a drink. At that same Melbourne lunch Shane Warne said that Fred “was a better drinker than anybody in the Australian team. He used to come in and say 'you want a beer?' straight away after the game. He'd sit next to you and have a beer and if you couldn't find an opener he'd open it with his teeth. He'd have five beers to our one." No wonder he was offered Aussie nationality!

The sight of an unsteady Freddie Flintoff at The Ashes victory celebration in London only reinforced his status as a folk hero in the minds of his devoted fans. But boozing in celebration is one thing – boozing to drown your sorrows is quite another. Duncan Fletcher, Fred’s England coach, has copped some stick for revealing just how much of a problem Flintoff’s drinking was during the Australian Ashes tour in 2006/07. But at the time his irresponsible behaviour went unreported in the media. In “The Spectator” at the end of the tour Peter Oborne wrote “It is impossible to overstate the shame and ghastliness of England's winter tour of Australia. Our cricketers were a disgrace to their sport, to their country and to themselves…some of our players have morally collapsed as a result….” Even Oborne, who is not part of the cricket writers cabal, pulled his punches and did not name Flintoff as one of those who had “morally collapsed”. The rest of the media followers, who had lived close to the Tour party for months, followed a self-imposed conspiracy of silence about Fred and his antics. It was only when the problems resurfaced in the West Indies during the Cricket World Cup in the infamous “Fredalo” incident that at last the press started to write a bit more openly about Flintoff’s boozing.

It is all too easy to talk down from the moral highground about the dysfunctional behaviour of some modern sportsmen and those of us who occasionally do this can expect abuse from the macho brigade which makes up so many of the sports fans of England. “Crack on big fella, you deserve to enjoy yourself and getting drunk is better than a lot of the alternatives which other celebs constantly indulge in. Have fun and live life to the full” wrote Keith a typical blogger on the BBC website. And no doubt the failure to report the “Getting Freddied” stories from Australia was in part a reflection of the same point of view – and of the fact that everyone in the media party loves Fred and many of them drink with him.

Cricket series are often a tale of two captains. Michael Vaughan cleaned up Ricky Ponting in England in 2005 but Ponting’s revenge was not on the absent Vaughan but on the very different and much more vulnerable Andrew Flintoff. And remember that Punter Ponting has been there – done that. Back in 1999 he was given a suspended $5,000 fine and banned for three matches as punishment for his part in a brawl in a Sydney nightclub. After the incident Ponting admitted that he had a drinking problem and sought counselling and it was reported that the Australian Cricket Board only suspended the fine on condition that Ponting underwent alcohol rehabilitation. All this was openly reported at the time and Ponting’s subsequent move to the Australian captaincy, and his status right at the top of world cricket, can be in no small measure attributable to the shock therapy he had received.

All of us who love England cricket, and who have huge affection and respect for Andrew Flintoff, will hope that he will use the coming months of enforced absence from the game to do more than just getting his body in order. At times we all go into denial about the problems we have - and there is usually somebody around to make you forget these problems over a glass or seven. But right now Fred needs these mates like a hole in the head. Perhaps he should pick up the ‘phone to Ricky Ponting and have a heart to heart with a man who has conquered similar demons. Nobody wants Freddie to be scurrying with the crabs – the next few months will be crucial to ensure that this does not happen to him.