I was asked over the weekend if I thought Andrew Flintoff was an all-time cricketing great.
My initial instinct – the same instinct I have had for the past decade and more – was no. I thought he was superb, sure. But I struggled to view him within the upper echelons of cricketing all-rounders.
“Freddie” was the star of English cricket during my formative years. His performances during the 2005 Ashes, and during the summer of 2004 when England won all seven of their Test matches (in which every member of the top seven scored a century) were inspirational.
But for some reason I didn’t quite feel the magic. Perhaps I was too busy focusing on the two men called Jones in the England squad? Geraint Jones‘ 100 against New Zealand at Leeds was undoubtedly my highlight.
The most probable reason is to do with numbers (what a surprise for this site). Flintoff‘s numbers don’t come close to matching those of Jacques Kallis, Sir Garfield Sobers or Sir Ian Botham (though Botham’s stats worsened during the tail-end of his distinguished career).
As we can see in the above chart, Flintoff’s bowling average spent most of his career higher than his batting average, failing the key Test a great all-rounder must pass.
It did not drop below his batting average until his 51st Test – Test #1762 against Australia at Trent Bridge in August 2005.
Flintoff top-scored in England’s first-innings 477 with 102, before hitting a vital 26 during a successful chase of 129, giving England a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish in the 5th and final Test.
Fittingly, Flintoff’s Test stats first resembled greatness during the series for which he is most remembered.
In contrast, Jacques Kallis‘ batting average did not exceed his bowling average until his 22nd Test. But 144 Tests later, he would retire with a batting average 22.71 runs to the good.
Sobers‘ averages fluctuated until his 17th Test, when batting took a lead it would not give up for a further 76 Tests.
And Flintoff? In 79 Tests, he averaged 31.77 with the bat and 32.78 with the ball.
But here’s the rub.
Ben Stokes has the same criticism/praise levelled against him. As with “Freddie”, they say to ignore the average averages – focus on his aura, his ability to lift the performance of those around him.
Yet I think Ben Stokes is a marvel – possibly England’s most important cricketer right now.
How can I be such a big fan of Ben Stokes, and yet not hold Andrew Flintoff in the same regard?
England won 30 of the 79 Tests in which Flintoff appeared, drawing 24 and losing 25 – a win percentage of 38%.
Stokes has been on the winning side in 10 of his 28 Tests thus far, losing 13 and drawing five – a winning percentage of 36%. Not too dissimilar.
On Sunday, Stokes ended a Test with his batting average higher than his bowling average for the first time since 3 January 2014.
The numbers don’t lie. Stokes‘ averages are similar to Flintoff’s at the end of his career.
But – and a big but at that, bigger than Salman himself – Kallis and Sobers‘ averages did not come good until around their 20th Test.
Flintoff had an aura. Stokes has an aura. But for this statistical organ, the proof is in the numbers, and Stokes is at the the point in his career when the great all-rounders rise to the top.
As Stokes prepares for cap no. 29 on Thursday, who’d bet against him increasing the gap further?