People's hero freed for final stand
Andrew Flintoff at his best is an unfettered force of nature. He hurtles to the crease with a channelled core of aggression, and bats with the complexity of a drunk in a bar-room brawl. In his misspent days of youth, he carried more bulk than the then heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, and to this day he can put away more ales than any England cricketer since the last great allrounder in their ranks, Ian Botham.
He inhales slip catches like a blue whale sifting plankton, and laps up the crowd's acclaim like the lord of all he surveys. There was a brief but glorious period, in the years 2003 to 2005, when it seemed as though there was no cricketing cause that could not be bent to his will. His mind and body came together as one to take glorious advantage of the natural talents that had been bestowed upon the man, and the plaudits that came his way have been matched by no Englishman since.
Sadly for Flintoff and England, those plaudits have not been matched by the man himself either, for he has been anything but unfettered in the last four years of his international existence. Where once he was as free-flowing as the Zambezi over Victoria Falls, now his career comes in regulated fits and spurts, as if held back by a mighty great dam of injury. His will to burst free has not been stymied in the slightest, but more often that not, his wholehearted galumphing cracks the plaster in his own increasingly brittle walls rather than the defences of his opponents.
His decision to retire from Test cricket has come as no surprise - the only thing that has raised eyebrows is the timing. Ricky Ponting, never slow to seize upon a perceived weakness in his opponents, has wondered out loud whether the remaining four Tests of the Ashes will be turned into a Flintoff farewell "circus", such as happened when Steve Waugh bowed out ahead of what turned out to be a mightily close-fought series against India in 2003-04.
Even if it does, however, is that necessarily a bad thing for England's series prospects? Simply by saying his piece now, Flintoff has achieved the release that he so desperately needed. The dam can now safely be broken, because there's no longer any reason to fear for what might happen if he is washed away in the flood. There will be no more watching through the cracks of the fingers when he starts to charge in for his 35th over of the innings, as he did at Cardiff, because going for broke - with not a jot of concern for the consequences - will be a return to his most natural and fearsome state.
In 2005, on the eve of the decisive Oval Test, Flintoff featured on the front page of the Sun, along with the following pledge: "I promise all readers that every drop of sweat we have in our bodies will be left at The Oval. We will give everything we have and more to win back the Ashes." He was true to his word back then, bowling 18 overs straight off the reel to secure his second (and peculiarly, his last) five-wicket haul. He'll be true to his word now. And if, as seems highly probable, he cannot make it all the way to the end, then at least he'll have the chance to take a few Aussies down with him.
"Nothing can fill you with as much excitement as an Ashes series. It's on a different level to any other competition you play in," said Flintoff during today's press conference at Lord's. There will be sadness that we shall never again see him in cricketing whites after this summer (and that probably goes for his Lancashire first-class career as well) and quite possibly there will be anger as well, that a man so central to the recent glories of Test cricket can be forced to take such a dramatic step to prolong his professional career.
All such debates will rage in the coming days, and other players will doubtless feel that a similar decision is the only prudent way to ensure that their years as professional cricketers are conducted as lucratively as possible. As Kumar Sangakkara said during the recent World Twenty20, Test cricket determines your place in history, not the zeroes in your bank account. Success in the Ashes, however, takes care of both, as Flintoff well knows from his previous success against Australia. Everything he is today stems from that heady summer.
In that regard it irks him that his record as a Test cricketer has stalled since he left the field in glory at The Oval. A triumphant performance immediately followed in Multan the following winter, when his titanic eight wickets on a dead deck were overlooked in England's defeat, and then of course came the miracle of Mumbai, when his lackadaisical leadership (with help from Johnny Cash) inspired England to level the series in the final Test against India.
When he returned to England the following summer, however, he was not the unfettered rampager of old. He was encumbered with the captaincy - a burden, like Botham before him, that ill suited such a free spirit (though both men were the last to admit it) - and it was on his own orders, in a devastatingly futile final day against Sri Lanka at Lord's, that he pounded his dodgy ankle through an innings tally of 51 overs, in a vain attempt to batter his way to victory. What might have happened had someone stepped in to protect him from himself that day?
That's not how it has been with Flintoff's post-2005 era, however. There has been no hiding from his own frailties (or indeed from England's inadequacies), and the lack of surprise or sentiment that greeted his casual announcement to the team on the Nursery Ground this morning confirmed that the end was an open secret. The statistics of Flintoff's recent involvement with England are almost insultingly grim - three wins and 13 losses in 23 Tests that he has played; 12 wins and three losses in the 25 Tests he has missed - and as Andrew Strauss confirmed, England as a team are no longer in thrall to his aura.
"I think we've shown signs there is life after Freddie," said Strauss. "He's always just been a constituent part of the side, and we've never believed we are a one-man team. Some young guys are coming through and looking the business - Jimmy [Anderson] and Stuart Broad have both bowled well when Fred hasn't been around. It's a shame this has come as soon as it has done, but the fact he's been injured so much in the last couple of years makes us better placed to deal with it than in the last couple of years."
Flintoff was the life and soul of the dressing room during the glory years of 2003-05; he has in recent years been more of a spectre, particularly for the more spookable players in the side, such as Anderson, who can't quite allow himself the same freedom of expression when his more demonstrative colleague is around, and averages almost 10 runs higher with the ball whenever they line up in the same bowling attack. For the rest of the summer, however, the truth is in the open, and the players can relax into their roles. It already feels like a boil of discontent has been lanced.
And then, finally, there is the impact this news will have on the fans, for Flintoff's rapport with his audience cuts through all classes and forces even the corporate-hospitality set to return to their seats to watch the action. In 2003-04 Waugh's grand farewell descended into mawkishness, with the entire SCG crowd waving trademark red hankies at Australia's captain as he descended for his final match-saving innings.
But that's unlikely to happen with salt-of-the-earth Fred. Surely the only appropriate send-off is a massive great piss-up in the stands - starting, of course, on Thursday at Lord's, a venue where England have not beaten Australia since 1934. It could well be that Flintoff's last stand will take place right here on the hallowed turf in the coming five days. What better way to bow out than with a performance that breaks a hoodoo.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo