The Botham Conundrum – II

source: espncricinfo.com
source: espncricinfo.com

In 2003 against South Africa, he scored a majestic 142 after drinking ten pints of beer with Steve Harmison the night before.

He was once run out batting for England because he could not get rid of the effects of three overnight Viagra tablets.

It was his shirtless antics at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai that made Sourav Ganguly swear that one day he would do the same on English soil.

During the 2007 World Cup, he got drunk with some of his team mates before a match, and nearly drowned when the pedalo carrying them capsized.

Once in a series between England and Sri Lanka, an unofficial ban was put on England players by the captain Nasser Hussain, refraining them from even speaking to Muttiah Muralitharan. In the same series, he let Murali bat with one of his willows, did not bowl bouncers to him, and did not get any doosra in return. He refused to bowl bouncers to Murali even under direct instructions, so deep was his friendship with the man. They were of course mates from their Lancashire days.

Since retiring from cricket at a very young age of 31, he has boxed, he has modelled, he has been on multiple reality shows, and has even commentated on Darts Championships.

A reckless man, who drank profusely, philandered around, was extremely competitive, played jolly good cricket, yet would choose life and friendship over cricket any day of the year—that pretty well sums up Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff for an onlooker. But was he the “Next Botham” after all?

source: dailymail.co.uk
source: dailymail.co.uk

Having debuted against South Africa in Trent Bridge in 1998, four years and 12 sporadic test matches later, Flintoff had scored 259 runs at 13.63, and had taken 13 wickets at 44.15 apiece. He was doing just moderately better in the limited overs format at that point in time. The very fact that he had lasted in the set up in spite of such abysmal performances was testimony to the fact that the selectors had decided to invest in him, believed in his talent, and were prepared to give him the long rope. But time certainly was running out for him.

When Flintoff came out to bat in England’s 2nd innings at Christchurch in 2002, they were precariously placed at 106/5, leading by 187 on a pitch that was inexplicably turning into a batsman’s paradise from being a greentop. He had scored 8 runs from his last five test innings, including a duck in the first innings of this match. What transpired between him and Graham Thorpe over the next fifty overs was a match-defining partnership of 281, a sixth-wicket record for England, overtaking Peter Parfitt and Barry Knight’s 240 (also against New Zealand at Auckland, 1962-63). Thorpe went on to score a brilliant 200. But Flintoff, with his 137 off 163 balls, had finally arrived. The same test match had already seen a swing bowling exhibition from Matthew Hoggard in his 1st innings return of 7/63, and was about to witness the fastest test match double hundred ever recorded in Nathan Astle’s 222 (168) in the failed Kiwi run chase.

Next year, Flintoff displayed another glimpse of his rare brilliance. His 142 against South Africa at Lords almost singlehandedly threatened to save an innings defeat for England in a match where they were trailing by more than 500 runs in the 1st innings. South Africa did eventually win by an innings and 92 runs, but the Botham comparisons were gaining ground at this point, especially after this display. He would further play a significant role as a batsman in West Indies in 2003-04, against New Zealand and West Indies at home in 2004, and in India in 2005-2006; in all of the mentioned series, he averaged more than fifty with the bat.

But Ian Botham was not only about batting. For approximately the first five years of his test career, he was also one of the finest bowlers in the world. In fact, Botham’s 15-year career can be divided conveniently into two phases: the first five years since his debut in 1977 and the other phase starting with the 1982-1983 Ashes in Australia, until he retired. During the first phase, Botham averaged 37.92 with the bat and took 249 wickets at 23.32. The second yielded a batting average of 29.00 while his wickets cost him 37.84. He also held the record of being the highest wicket taker in cricket history at one point in time, really made possible by his performances during the first phase. It is the spirit and skills of this Botham of the first phase that England has always wanted to see getting a resurrection in the flesh and blood of someone else since his injury. And although Flintoff had started performing with the bat, he was yet to prove himself as a test match bowler of any note.

After playing 25 test matches, he was averaging roughly 50 (49.92) with the ball. But he finished 2003 strongly with a decent series in Sri Lanka. He bowled his heart out on placid wickets and averaged 24.55 picking up 9 wickets in the Spice Isle. This kick-started a two-year phase in his career, during which he would be consistently rated as one of the best fast bowlers in the world, picking up 111 wickets in 27 test matches at an average of 24.93. This was also a phase when he averaged more than forty with the bat (40.17) and scored three of his five test match hundreds. These stats are very similar and highly comparable with those of Botham during his first phase, just that Botham did it for five years and Flintoff for two. Freddie was particularly severe against the West Indies, against whom he played 8 out of the 27 tests that he played in these two years (587 runs at 58.70 and 25 wickets at 23.76).

He was at his sublime best against Australia in the Ashes of 2005. If Ian Botham can have an Ashes series named after him in hindsight (“Botham’s Ashes” in the 1981 Australia tour of England), Flintoff might stake his claim to probably the greatest test series of all time. His consistent performances with the bat and match-turning spells with the ball ensured England regained the urn after almost two decades. He scored 402 runs at 40.20, and took 24 wickets at 27.29 in 5 tests. It was a series from which magnificent performances from Pietersen, Warne, Ponting, Jones, Lee, or even Michael Vaughan, still remain etched in the memory. But it was Flintoff who was the man for all occasions. He won two Man of the Match awards and was the joint Man of the Series with Warne. If 1981 was a tale of unforgettable brilliance on show, 2005 was a coming of age story.

He never scaled these averages again. His wasn’t a tale of heights, Botham’s was. From 2006 until he retired after the 2009 Ashes, his bowling would be mediocre and his batting steady at best. But Andrew Flintoff had already ensured that he would go down in history as the player who finally fit the bill, the player who at the height of his powers could compete with the Botham of yore. He played 79 tests, scored 3845 runs at 31.77 and took 226 wickets at 32.78. Ian Botham played 102 tests, scored 5200 at 33.54 and took 383 wickets at 28.40. Botham may have been the better player in their respective peaks and the player with the better record, but Freddie actually did give him a run for his money.

A magnificent double century and consistent performances with the ball from Ben Stokes in the recently concluded series in South Africa have ensured that the Botham chants are again on at a very high pitch. Stokes’ glorious performances though, have been few and far between as yet. Maybe the performances in South Africa would usher in an era where he would become something much bigger than the maverick that he’s been. Until then, one must not compare statistics and over-analyse his game, rather watch his brilliance expectantly, when on show. May the din subside and he emerge not as the next Botham or Flintoff, but as the one, the only, Benjamin Andrew Stokes.

source: talksport.com
source: talksport.com

But that is hoping against hope perhaps. The shadow of Sir Ian Terence Botham still looms large.

~ Abhinab Dasgupta

Cover photo source:  sun.co.uk, resources2news.com.au (from L to R)

Read here: The Botham Conundrum – I

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