There’s been a (slightly silly) debate on the sports pages of The Times about whether the now-retiring Freddie Flintoff counts as a “great” player. Peerless purple-proser Simon Barnes says yea, sensible crap-cutter Michael Atherton says nay.
Atherton’s argument is mostly based on Flintoff’s career stats, which are good, but not, well, great. I’m firmly with Barnes.
This ultimately comes down to whether you take a statistician’s or a more romatic 'sportsman’s' view of cricket (and probably, of sport or even life in general.) I'm a romantic: I barely remember dates, scores and tables, but I never forget the heroes and the villains. Yet if stats could tell the story of a match, it would be just as meaningful to watch it on a Teletext scorecard as in the flesh. Clearly it isn’t; stats are just one facet of the game and averages don’t win Test series or get you an MBE.
The 2009 Ashes proves this: the Aussies had all but one of the series’ top seven run scorers, and all of the top three wicket-takers. Yet they lost. Australia's Clarke and North finished with excellent batting averages, but so what?
Much more important than numbers are the key passages of play which swing matches and inspire teams, often come out of the blue and sometimes don’t show up at all in the stats. This time there were three: Collingwood, Anderson and Panesar manfully blocking out the unlikely draw at Cardiff; Flintoff’s five-wicket demolition job at Lord's; and Broad’s spell of bowling at the Oval on Friday.
Flintoff has been responsible for more of these key winning passages and more great moments than any other England player of this era and therefore he is indeed the ‘great’ player of his generation, whatever the stats might say.