Farewell, Fred

The match that took place at the Oval, August 20th – 23rd, 2009, was the last time Andrew Flintoff played Test cricket.

He didn’t play at Headingley and England were screwed. Kevin Pietersen didn’t play either which meant England were doubly screwed. Fred returned at the Oval and though he only took one wicket, he pulled off one of the great moments of the summer in his run-out of Ricky Ponting as England proceeded to regain the Ashes.

But regardless of what happened in that last Test, I’d already had my moment of magic that summer.

I’m talking about Day 5 at Lord’s. Some days are so damn perfect you couldn’t script them any better if you sat down and tried, and Monday July 20th 2009 was one of these.

My day didn’t start all that well: train was late, phone call from work about some irrelevancy, 40 minutes to get from St Pancras to the ground in time for start of play, urgent need to piss before taking my seat in the Mound Stand (5 minute bell rang as I was in the toilets). But I think that must have been the cricket gods’ way of taking pity on me and getting all the extraneous bullshit out of the way “early doors”, as they say, because I was settled in my seat just as the umpires were coming out.

It’s ironic now, after the fact, that I’d entered the ballot for Saturday tickets and hadn’t been successful, and even when Day 5 tickets had gone on sale I’d laughed and bought one with no real expectation that the match would even last that long. As it stood, unbelievably, Australia were still dragging their innings along by bloodied broken fingernails, with Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin the last twitching neurons in a short-circuiting batting order. The sun was out, and the wicket was still a belter.

Clarke had impressed me. There’s something about him that annoys the hell out of me, with his numerically-illiterate tattoos and his to-the-manner-born expectation of captaincy once Ponting hangs up his bat – but he had played some lovely shots the day before and showed doughty determination while wickets had fallen around him. Only Brad Haddin – a batsman I found myself warming to, not least after his hopping terror that the ball stuck in his pad was still a live one – had stayed with him.

It was perfectly possible that these two could pull off the runs needed for an improbable victory. Improbable-but-possible is usually enough to give any side a sniff of victory against England. Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz were still to come, so it could have been a long day.

But magic happened; Flintoff happened, thundering down like the wrath of god on anything human standing between him and the stumps. He got Haddin with his 4th delivery for 80 with a ball that was only a few overs old and he sent it down consistently over 90 mph. Jesus christ it was beautiful. The noise was tremendous. We were all on our feet. The floor was sticky from 4 days’ worth of spilled beer and Pimms. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but the fact I was here, and I was watching something that suddenly felt fraught with impending significance.

Clarke was tempted out of his crease by Swann with the 2nd ball of his over. Canny bit of bowling – Clarke walked down the wicket to the 1st ball of Swann’s over and I knew that’s how he would get out.

Mitchell Johnson was better with bat than with ball by an order of magnitude. His 50 came and went without me noticing until I looked up at the scoreboard and thought “shit”.

Fred again, got Hauritz, poor brave Hauritz with the dislocated finger, clean bowled him for 1. When he bowled Siddle he turned towards the Mound Stand and spread his arms and did that Colossus thing and we all went bonkers. Five wickets. Name on the board. Absolute magic. By this time I’d given up taking pictures because I just wanted to cheer and roar the lining of my lungs bloody along with everyone else.

Mitch’s resistance ended when Swanny got him for 63 and the reaction of the crowd was relief, disbelief, and crazy celebration. Fred was mobbed by the team and there was no way anyone in the crowd was sitting back down again.

It was all over by 12:40. England won, first time since 1934 against Australia at Lord’s.

The mood afterwards was one long cigarette after the orgasm of England’s victory. People were milling slowly about at the back of the Pavilion waiting for the Australian team; the museum was shut because there was a press conference going on inside; the amount of people just standing around was insane and no one seemed in any hurry to leave.

Fred’s career ended after England’s Ashes victory at the Oval and he went under the knife, yet again, for another procedure on his rickety knee. Increasingly, as time and rehab dragged on, his return to any sort of cricket became an ever-receding pipe dream, and while the announcement of his retirement from all forms of cricket on Thursday 16th September was criticized for its timing, coming as it did on the climactic day of 2010’s county championship race, it really came as no surprise to any of us.

Say what you like about Flintoff – the messianic wicket celebrations, the residency in Dubai, the polarizing dressing room presence – but he was a player who was, if not one of the all-time greats, a cricketer who gave England fans moments of genuine greatness, a man who gave his all every time he stepped onto the field.

No matter how many energy drinks he might pimp in the future, no matter how many witless reality TV shows he may appear on; none of this will ever make me forget his tremendous exploits as an England cricketer, and in particular that day at Lord’s when he ripped the heart out of the Australian team and gave England belief once again.

Farewell, Fred.


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