A Nightmare on Talbot Road? Freddy's Return

Is Andrew Flintoff's return to cricket just a publicity stunt?

Freddie’s back.

No not Krueger, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff has come out of retirement to play for Lancashire in the Natwest T20 Blast, almost five years since he last stepped onto a cricket field.  His last game of professional cricket was on the 23rd August 2009, although he didn’t officially announce his retirement until the following year.

The suspicion around this latest comeback is that it just another publicity stunt by Flintoff to keep his name value up. Since retiring from cricket he has:

  • become a panelist on the Sky1 show, “A League of Their Own”,
  • has become a brand ambassador for Jacamo
  • And (infamously), took up professional boxing – although his career was limited to one fight, that he won on points against Richard Dawson.

Flintoff’s return to the cricket field would certainly grab the attention of the public. His return to cricket is currently a huge story in all of the major newspapers websites and his name value alone resonates with the public. In an event that is short of international stars, Flintoff’s presence in a Lancashire shirt certainly has intrigue value and could bring some publicity to an event that hasn’t quite captured the public’s imagination as it would have been hoped.

It may also give fans the chance to see what all the fuss is about. Flintoff, who has been called English greatest cricketer since Ian Botham and is a former winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, is on paper at least, not really deserving of the hype and praise that is attached to him.

He played 79 test matches for England across 11 years. He only scored five centuries and averaged 31.77 with the bat. With the ball, he only took three five-wicket hauls and averaged 32.88. Attach these statistics to any other player not called Flintoff and there would be outrage and the fact he has played so much test cricket.

It is the T20 format in which Flintoff is coming back to play in, but his record in this format isn’t great either. In the international format, he only averages 12.66 with the bat and 32.20 with the ball. His overall record is better; averaging 24.50 with the bat and 20.30 with the ball, but these are not necessarily stats that demand inclusion in a side, especially when you have played for five years.

Flintoff is expected to make his second debut for Lancashire next Friday against Yorkshire, although he is expected to play club cricket over the weekend and a second XI fixture next week. Presuming he comes through those matches unscathed by injury, his appearance in a red shirt next Friday is a near-certainty.

The ideal situation would be more Flintoff so firstly come through those fixtures without re-injuring himself but perhaps more pertinently, by scoring runs and taking wickets. If he fails to do either of those things in his warm-up matches then a question would have to be posed to Lancashire.

If they pick him despite having shown no form at all then the signs would point to this being a publicity stunt and a way of grabbing some media spotlight and gate receipts from those wanting to see him play. If they leave him out until he finds form, his comeback might be given more credibility. The director for cricket Mike Watkinson has said that he has to earn his place in the team but it would be a major surprise if he was not selected regardless of what he does this week.

Since Flintoff last played cricket, the game has moved on. New shots have been developed. Batsmen now need to be able to score in a 360 degree circle. Bowlers have had to develop new ways to getting batsmen out but also stopping them scoring runs. Totals of 200 in 20 overs were once considered fanciful, nowadays they are commonplace. Twice in recent months teams have chased down runs at a stratospheric pace; The Netherlands chasing 190 in thirteen overs to beat Ireland in the World T20 and the Mumbai Indians repeated that feat against the Rajastan Royals in the IPL. Fielding has improved to a state whereby no longer being an okay fielder is acceptable; you have to be able to dive about and save every run possible.

Most of the players who will be involved in Lancashire’s fixtures will have spent the past five years perfecting those skills. Flintoff will not have done this. Showing in practice that you can bowl well and hit the ball along way is fine but doesn’t necessarily correspond to what you can do in the middle.

When he retired due to injury, Flintoff was already a cricketer on the way down. He failed to score a test century in his last 51 innings. He averaged just 28 in the four years following the 2005 Ashes triumph. With the ball, he only averages less than 30 once in his last five test series. Even his last great triumph in 2009 when he took five wickets at Lords was the anomaly. 5-92 in 27 overs in that innings – 3-325 in the other 101.5 overs he bowled.

Flintoff is Britain’s first bona fide celebrity cricketer and his greatest talents lay in the self-promotion of his own ability. The myth of his brilliance and his impact on games does not correspond to the facts. He was undoubtedly a good player – for a period between 2003 and 2005, he was excellent, but outside of this limited period he regressed back to the mean of being a cricketer who held a place in the England team and the hearts of the public far longer than he should have done so.

His return to cricket has at the very least raised the profile of the Natwest T20 Blast. He wants his return to be a success and not a one-off.

And it may well be the case. But evidence suggests it might not be for his cricket that he makes headlines.

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