CAPE TOWN – Throughout his colourful career, Andrew Flintoff wore the noose around his neck of being “the next Ian Botham”.
The charismatic England all-rounder is now ensuring his “heir apparent”, Ben Stokes, has no such baggage leading up to the four-match Test series against the Proteas, which starts next Thursday at Lord’s.
“He’s brilliant, isn’t he? I don’t know about the ‘heir apparent’. He wants to set his own standards higher. I would’ve loved to have been as good as Ben Stokes.
“You watch him play, and something is happening every time he has the bat in his hands, and also with the ball. He’s a proper cricketer! He could bat at No 3. He takes it on, but his technique is so good,” Flintoff told Sky Sports in a TV interview on Wednesday.
“His bowling is improving all the time. The most impressive thing is that he just takes everything in his stride. He goes to the IPL, gets paid an absolute fortune... which is great... I’m sure he’s got a new car!
“But that comes with certain pressures. It’s the pressure of expectation. Everybody is looking at him to do something, and he just never lets you down.
“I’ll be watching at the grounds or on TV. Me and me boys just can’t wait for Ben Stokes to come to the crease, because things just start happening.”
South Africans are certainly well-acquainted with Stokes’ ability. With 2016 being just two days old, and the picturesque Table Mountain providing the serene backdrop on a couple of glorious sun-lit days in Cape Town, the flame-haired son of a former New Zealand rugby league player continued the New Year festivities in a merry way with a superb 258 off only 198 balls.
In his heyday, Flintoff had a similar maverick ability to change the course of a contest through his individual brilliance. His inspired spell in the second Test against the Proteas at Headingley in 2008, when with the “assistance” of a sightscreen that played tricks with the batsmen’s eyesight, particularly stands out.
Often though, Flintoff had little or no support from his teammates – South Africa still went on to win that highly-dramatic Leeds Test, which secured the Proteas’ first series victory in England post-isolation – and there’s little doubt that he would have loved to be part of the current talent-laden England squad that he believes should have the beating of the Proteas this summer.
“I just look at this England side. And this is not a slight on South Africa, for they have some quality too, but England are just so good,” Flintoff said.
“Jimmy (Anderson), that’s our best bowler ever! You’ve got Alastair Cook, that’s our best batsman ever! Joe Root himself. Jonny Bairstow for me is unbelievable. How he doesn’t play all three formats for England is beyond me!
“Every time he comes into the side, he performs. It’s not just the runs he scores, but also how he does it. He’s always putting pressure on the opposition.
“I just don’t see how we can go wrong. It’s not like the side I used to play in. This is a proper team,” he added.
The Proteas will still fancy their chances, though. Faf du Plessis’ side are searching for a hat-trick of series victories in England after previously attaining success in 2008 and 2012.
The cornerstone of these triumphs, and earlier in 2003, has been the ability to put the England captain under pressure.
Subsequently, this led to the resignation of Nasser Hussain (2003), Michael Vaughan (2008) and Andrew Strauss (2012), with all three leaders falling on their sword during a series with the Proteas.
It is unlikely scenario this time around, though, with Alastair Cook throwing in the towel back in February after the ill-fated tour to India.
Star batsman Joe Root has replaced Cook, and will lead England for the first time at Lord’s next week in the opening Test against the Proteas. It certainly will provide the 26-year-old Yorkshireman with a different set of challenges, but Flintoff is confident Root will be able to cope with the extra demands.
“I am sure Joe is not going to be affected at all. Since he’s started playing international cricket, he has just taken everything in his stride.
“When he walks out on to the field, every time it’s like the best day of his life. He is obviously a fine player. He’s got the team behind him. And as captain, that’s all you need, so he’ll be fine.”