Fred was one of the good guys
It's been a funny few days for me, to be perfectly honest. I didn't realise how much I missed Test cricket until I saw the euphoria that followed England's win at The Oval. The scenes were incredible, all the ecstasy on people's faces and the crowds going wild, and it's moments like that when I think: 'I wish I was still there, I wish I was still playing'. That's the hardest bit. The only solution, I've found, is to remove myself from the action and try to take as little notice as possible.
All these emotions are what Andrew Flintoff is going to have to go through in the future, now that he has bowed out of Test cricket. I have to admit I haven't yet seen his glory moment, that run-out of Ricky Ponting that changed the final day. I was playing a benefit match for Anthony McGrath, and so I don't even know where he was fielding at the time. Mid-on, was it? Did he have to move far? Ah, he had to bend down, that was probably the tricky bit!
I'm sure it was a glorious moment - we certainly heard the roar from the clubhouse when the wickets went down. But the whole thing has been a bit surreal. Four years ago I was so involved, and so wrapped up in what was happening in my little group of players, everything was just Ashes, Ashes, Ashes, Ashes. We couldn't move for Ashes fever. Now I'm just wrapped up in my own little game, and occasionally coming in for lunch and thinking, 'oh yeah, what's the score?' The result is fantastic news, but a part of me is a little bit ... numb.
But I'm so happy for Fred that he's managed to go out on his terms. Yes, he's been forced into retirement by injury, but in the circumstances, what a way to go. He could have taken ten wickets in the last innings, or scored a century to set up the game, but other than that he timed it just about perfectly. He's gone with his dignity intact, he's played fantastically well throughout the series with a lot of important wickets, and he's come away at the right time. He'll be able to look back and say, the last thing I did was regain the Ashes.
I wish I could be able to look back without regrets. My last match, in Hamilton, was a disappointing affair. I had a bad game, England got stuffed, and I never played again.
Instead, I have to focus on the memories, and so many of those revolve around Fred, because he was such a massive presence throughout my time with England. In fact, he was right there alongside me during my finest hour, at Johannesburg in 2005, when I grabbed 12 wickets and we beat South Africa on an incredible final day.
I remember halfway through that game, when Harmy's shins were killing him and the whole team was on its knees, Fred came up to me, put his arm around me, and said 'Hoggy, I know you're tired, I'm tired as well, we're both ****ed basically, but me and you together, we'll do it, me and you, let's do it.' It was one big last effort from both of us, I nicked the wickets while he pinged people's heads at the other end, and then we went off and got pissed! Happy days.
That was the greatest thing about Fred. Whenever you get wickets or a five-for, he was always made up for you. He's one of those guys who holds no animosity, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and tells you exactly what he's thinking of you, and most of the time it's good news. He'll tell you he's happy for you, he loves you, and he's really pleased. He's such a good guy. He's got no bad bones in his body, honestly.
Everyone gripes about his statistics, but if you look at his career, it's only in the last five years that he's come on leaps and bounds as a bowler. Before that he was more of a batting allrounder, and he didn't pay much attention to his bowling. You can read a lot into stats, but he started out so young with so much riding on him as "the next big allrounder". In his early career he didn't do himself justice, but in his later stage he did fantastically well and contributed to so many victories. And that, at the end of the day, is what matters above all else.
But I guess it's not all bad when you come to the end of your career. I saw a picture of Fred in the paper today with his daughter Holly, and she's a proper little girl now. The last time I saw her she was about two or three, and small. She's really grown-up now and what a lovely time to be able to say: 'That's it, I'm not going to spend so long away from home, I can watch my kids grow up.'
I spent the day with my lad Ernie today. He's two-and-a-bit and really curious about everything, and it's great watching him running around the playground and asking for his dad. I'm sure Fred's going to savour all that quality time with his clan ... when he's not in the gym doing his rehab, of course. He's on such personal terms with Rooster, his fitness coach, he's going to be a page boy at his wedding on Saturday. And then it's back to getting his knee fit again. His Test days are over, but he still wants to play in one-day cricket and the IPL, and I'm sure that incentive will drive him through.
Matthew Hoggard will be writing regular columns for Cricinfo through the 2009 season