I realise I’m a bit slow out of the blocks here – the story’s been around since last Thursday – but I just couldn’t resist setting down a few thoughts about Flintoff-gate, albeit belatedly. And as always, I’d love to hear your views too.
In case you’ve not been across this one, a quick resume. Andrew Flintoff has landed himself in hot water after making a foul-mouthed rant about his fellow Lancastrian and former England captain, Mike Atherton, whom he described as a “f—— p—-”.
Speaking at a party hosted by Sky last week, Flintoff said: “He sits there making judgments about players that are much better than he ever was, believe me, he’s a p—-. How can he talk about a player like Alastair Cook who is 10 times the player he ever was — he has a much bigger average and will go on and on.”
“Atherton averaged in the 30s for England and yet he thinks he can judge others.” According to the Daily Telegraph, when told he was talking to a journalist at the Sky event, Flintoff replied: “I don’t care. Say what you like. There’s no love lost there.”
An apologist for Flintoff might blame these remarks on a slight excess of alcohol. Now, I wasn’t an eye-witness, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and wager that Flintoff was very drunk when he made those remarks. Yes, that’s slightly defamatory, and no, I don’t have proof – but Fred has a bit of previous in this area. And do those sound like the words of a sober man?
The booze is no excuse, though, and as they say, in vino veritas. Flintoff was at a public event, and is a former England captain. He now makes a living by trading off his cricketing fame, so it’s incumbent upon him to speak with discretion.
I’m reminded of the parallels between him and another legendary all-rounder. For years we strove to identify the ‘new Ian Botham’ and in Flintoff we found him, in more ways than one.
The original Botham was by a margin the superior player, but both made their name with heroic performances in epic Ashes victories. Both relied more on their bowling than their batting in the second half of their careers. Both are held in more affection by the general public than by serious England followers. And both are inherently boorish and arrogant characters who believe their feats on the cricket field make their judgement inviolate.
David Lloyd once described Botham’s attitude to any dispute in the Sky commentary box. If any of his colleagues maintained a contrary view about a player or match situation, Botham’s retort is always along the lines of – “so how many test wickets did you get, then?”. Because he achieved so much on the field, Botham always knows best. And it’s that kind of attitude which runs to the heart of Flintoff’s Atherton outburst.
You do not need to have been a great player to be an authoritative cricket commentator. Sure, you must obviously have extensive knowledge of the game, but equally important are a keen eye, felicitous word power, and the ability to think and speak from a layman’s perspective.
Jonathan Agnew, Vic Marks, Simon Hughes, Mark Nicholas and Christopher Martin-Jenkins are all cricket broadcasters and writers of the highest class. But the first two of those played only a handful of tests, and the second pair none at all. CMJ never even played county cricket.
In some ways, having been a brilliant player is actually a disadvantage in the commentary box. If excellence comes so naturally to you, it’s much harder to put yourself in the shoes of a more standard player, who’s trying his best but can only succeed through hard work and some good fortune. Natural gifts distort perception, nor do they in themselves give you the ability to describe and analyse.
If you take Flintoff’s notion to its logical extreme, no one could validly discuss any field of human endeavour unless they had reached its pinnacle. Only multi-Oscar-winning directors could review films. Ex-prime ministers alone would have the licence to commentate on politics. And as Alan Tyers acutely observed in the Telegraph, “although not himself a gorilla, Sir David Attenborough has nevertheless illuminated their lives for TV viewers”.
I was as thrilled as anyone by his lion-hearted contributions to England’s cause, but I’ve never really warmed to Flintoff the man. It’s that prickliness and aloofness, the arrogance I mentioned earlier. Sometimes he could behave yobbishly and selfishly, and neither as a player nor captain was he flawless. During the 2006/7 Ashes, when he was the skipper, he turned up drunk for training. You couldn’t imagine Mike Atherton doing that.
But you do remember what a fine player Atherton was until his back problems began to overwhelm him, and that’s the great irony and fallacy of Flintoff’s remarks. Athers was England’s most important batsman for most of the nineties, and the wicket the opposition most valued. His test average of 37.69 may look modest in a modern context, but compared with today he played for a weaker and much less dominant England side against a strong West Indies and irresistible Australia. Unlike Alastair Cook, Atherton had to bat against Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, and Glenn McGrath.
He’s now become a superb TV commentator and Times correspondent – elegant, judicious and enlightening both with pen and microphone. With his authority, precision and insightfulness, he’s perhaps this present generation’s equivalent of Richie Benaud. Atherton also brings to the commentary box the experience of 115 test matches, a record-breaking 54 of them as captain. Hardly a footnote in English cricket history, is he?
Compare his post-retirement career with that of Flintoff, who seems unfocused and unfulfilled – advertising Morrison’s and making unmemorable knockabout shows for ITV. He can’t spend the rest of his life just being Freddie Flintoff – he needs a proper job, and mouthing off drunkenly at parties isn’t going to help achieve that. Whatever you think about his persona, he was a very important cricketer, and one of the few who’ve ever caught the imagination of the mainstream public. I don’t think anyone wants to see him degenerate into a dishevelled, bitter and disreputable self-parody.