The promise of Fred
As far as I know, the only professional sportsman to inspire a cartoon series was Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees catcher and stupendously daft ha'pworth who was inventively recast as Yogi Bear. That Andrew Flintoff owes his nickname, Freddie, to another animated icon, Fred Flintstone, a Stone Age Homer Simpson, a fellow so flawed but well meaning that you always root for him, is just one of the innumerable reasons for my affection.
Yogi (the baseballer) may not have been smarter than the average bear - "Ninety per cent of this game is half mental," was one of his more accurate proclamations - but he did have a way with profundities. "You can't win all the time," he once reasoned. "There are guys out there who are better than you." To watch Flintoff is to suspect that, much as he disagrees with the latter assertion, it wouldn't upset him terribly to be proved wrong. Among peers (if not in his 2003-06 pomp), Jacques Kallis, Shakib-al-Hasan and Daniel Vettori may be his superior as multi-string pluckers, but none gladdens so many unbiased hearts, nor opens so many blinkered ones.
The danger with confessionals such as this is that they confirm how little we change. Despite having enjoyed nearly 10 decades on Planet Earth, EW Swanton, to take one depressing example, never relinquished a single pang of his boyhood passion for Frank Woolley. So protective was EW that he once strode into the dressing room at Canterbury and urged Steve Marsh, captain of his beloved Kent, to declare: Matty Walker, an amiable journeyman, was poised to break Woolley's hallowed ground record. To his undying credit, Marsh resisted the entreaties, leaving Walker to overturn EW's sepia-toned view of the way things should be.
Trouble is, I'm partial to change. Just as one's favourite book, musician, comedian or jam may alter with the acquisition of experience, wisdom and taste, so one's sporting predilections evolve. Especially when writing about sport becomes your livelihood, instilling a different, or at least more rounded, perspective.
I've worn out seven champions, each choice reflecting needs and times: Tom Graveney (cricketer as artist), Basil D'Oliveira (cricketer as political symbol), Phil Edmonds (rebel and stylist), David Gower (latter-day Graveney; standard-bearer for sport as good-mannered entertainment), Phil Tufnell (Edmonds squared) and Mohammad Azharuddin (Gower cubed). After Azhar's plummet from grace I found investing emotion in a sportsman impossible. Flirting with unseen ancients - George Headley, Frank Worrell - proved as satisfying as kissing a ghost. Then, in the summer of 2004, Flintoff came of age and I fell hook, line and sinker.
As a rule journalists glean as much glee from being proved wrong as they once derived from Prohibition, but I couldn't be more delighted that Flintoff has made me munch my words. After an infuriatingly sloppy knock for Lancashire in 2002, I suggested his prospects of fruitful maturation were being stymied by a reluctance to engage his brain. I could claim I was being intentionally provocative, trying to stir him out of his stupor, but that would be a fairly massive fib.
Inevitably, all his subsequent all-round derring-doings have stirred endless comparisons with one IT Botham, another unreconstructed schoolboy and bon viveur, another stranger to fear, lost causes and self-analysis, another sportsman whose reputation rests on one prolonged streak of magical omnipotence followed by years of pain, self-delusion and sub-par-dom. After the 2005 Ashes, at 27, Flintoff, by then on song and on fire for more than two years, was still on the rise, capable of anything, maybe everything; at the same age most of Botham's finest hours were memories.
Injury, though, soon whipped the carpet from beneath that galloping run-up, leaving only fleeting flashes of the Flashman of yore, of which the most fondly remembered will surely be that 10-over match-winning spell on the final day of this year's Lord's Ashes Test, sealing as it did England's first Ashes victory there since Hitler was taking the new ball for the Germans. All eyes were on him that Monday morning, every emotion riding on him: only he could banish all those ghosts and fears. How he thrived on the responsibility, the demands, the expectations. After snaring his fifth victim, his first such haul in a Test at HQ, he knelt down and closed his eyes, savouring a moment he thought might never arrive. Victory was still one wicket away but still a nation rejoiced.
When push comes to shove, Botham's Test figures, with bat and ball, are considerably more striking and enduring, while Flintoff levels the score in ODIs. But this is not an homage to digits and decimal points.
As with Botham, the obvious allure is that muscular, breezy innocence: can it truly be that easy to turn work into play? In other respects, they're galaxies apart. Botham's success was rooted in that anti-authoritarian, how-dare-you-question-me snarl and Thatcherite sneer, fertilised by the indomitability of the born show-off. Flintoff is less carefree and more sophisticated than he looks, but that's not saying much. Those massive shoulders appear chip-free, the grin so disarming you want to, well, cuddle him.
In most mouths, sledging is the most dubious form of wit, but Flintoff defies objections. Shortly after Tino Best came in to bat at Lord's in 2004 came some smirking advice from the hulking blond in the slips: "Mind the windows, Tino." Next ball, the belligerent Bajan was stumped, charging. The ensuing roar of laughter stemmed less from schadenfreude than sheer disbelief that an opponent should have swallowed the bait so readily.
In the same Test, Flintoff was clopping up the pavilion steps after a cheap dismissal when an MCC member swatted him with a rolled-up newspaper. Had it been Botham, who spent the rest of his career bridling after the same toffee-nosed gallery sent him to Coventry following a 1981 pair against Australia, the assailant would probably have suffered a volley of abuse or a crisp half-nelson. And deservedly so. Flintoff turned around briefly but rapidly concluded that identifying the culprit would be too lengthy and undignified a process.
Flintoff pushed my buttons partly because he seemed to have married the privilege of youth to the duties of manhood (the "Fredalo" incident put firmly paid to that delusion), but mostly because he embodied tomorrow, possibility, hope. In the middle of this decade he did for British cricket what Botham did a quarter of a century ago, beer in hand, capacious of heart, invigorating and replenishing. It is assuredly no coincidence that Channel 4 enjoyed its largest live audiences for four years during the Edgbaston Test of 2004, an auspicious prelude to 2005 and all that. Fearful of jinxing him, Tim Rice used to crouch behind the settee whenever David Gower came in; when Freddie takes guard, even now, even in his cricketing dotage, everybody wants a front-row pew. He still symbolises possibility, still radiates joy.
Forget the disappointments. Forget the excesses and the underachievements. At a time when the game, in Britain and beyond, was striving to court and spark a fresh generation, when we fortysomethings could hear only the hissing of long gone summer lawns and had begun to despair that our children would ever be remotely as turned on by flannelled tomfoolery as we were, along plodded Freddie to banish all scepticism. Yabba-dabba-do.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. This article is an updated version of one that was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2004