Monday, 10 August 2009

Missing Fred

Maybe England did miss Andrew Flintoff. And maybe they didn’t. The disease that afflicted the batting and bowling ranks at Headingley appeared so contagious that it seems impossible to imagine that he too wouldn’t have succumbed. Had that happened, England may well have lost their trump card - on the back of his wicketless performance at Edgbaston it would have added to Ricky Ponting's suggestion that he was on a downward spiral. Instead Flintoff's aura remains intact, perhaps even enhanced by his absence. Surely they wouldn't haven't have lost like that if he had played they will say. As it stands the Australians do still fear him, and the return of a fit (relatively), motivated and possibly even rather angry Fred (if the report from Michael Atherton in The Times today is anything to go by) can be the boost that England desperately need.

By the end of Saturday’s play the team looked bereft of ideas, confidence and hope. But not only will England have an undoubtedly stronger team when they take to field a week on Thursday, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower will also have vital ammunition for the almost equally important media battle that will take place in those intervening ten days. They will be able to argue, without stretching credulity unnecessarily, that not only will England have a stronger team than at Headingley but that Fred is desperate to bow out on a high note and that the rest of the team is equally determined that he should do so.

The series has all been about momentum. Momentum has been achieved not through thrilling victories but through stoic resistance at Cardiff and Edgbaston. First England and then Australia seemed to take immense heart both from the spirit and fight that their respective batsman showed and from the lack of killer instinct displayed by the respective bowling attacks. Australia may justifiably lay claim to having all the momentum going into the decider, but with some careful spin England may, over the next week and half, create some momentum of their own.

It was another ‘Fred’, a fast bowler of an earlier vintage from the other side of the Pennines, who was more truly missed at Headingley. Fred Trueman would have nodded approvingly at Peter Siddle’s well directed hostility at the England lower order. But he would have approved even more though of Stuart Clark’s probing line and length (in the first innings), giving nowt away, waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes. Not old fashioned, but classic (for is was as effective on Thursday as it ever has been) Headingley bowling.

But that is not why he was missed. It was when it was England’s turn to bowl. By the end of his life Trueman had become something of a caricature of himself, his refrain on Test Match Special that ‘I don’t know what’s going off out there’ reflecting a man ill at ease with the changing times, in a way that Richie Benaud, a man of similar vintage, has never been. It rather diminished him in the eyes of the public particularly those who had never seen him in full flow or in colour (black and white making bowlers look much slower of course...).

It would probably have amused him to have looked down on Headingley on Friday evening and again on Saturday and to hear his familiar refrain or a modern, possibly less polite version, being uttered by just about ever supporter whether in the ground, watching on TV or listening on TMS. Fred Trueman impersonators, one and all of us. He was particularly missed because no professional broadcaster, came close to approximating Fred's studied disbelief. Honourable mention though to Ian Botham, whose capacity for over-simplification continues to amaze and who thus struck a suitably bewildered figure as England continued to pepper the middle of the Headingley pitch in search of goodness knows what.Whilst still to develop the levels of curmudgeoness necessary for a proper Trueman homage, he has the ability and as Sky seem unlikely ever to fire him he has plenty of time to work on it. Or not.

A final thought on this thread. I read this week that following his retirement, Graeme Hick is looking to do some television or radio commentating. Both Trueman and Botham were famous for total self-belief something which made them great cricketers but dreadful commentators. On this basis, could we be about to witness the birth of a new broadcasting legend?

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