Andrew Flintoff's retirement September 17, 2010

Finally, farewell to a fine self-promoter

It'd be nice to say goodbye to Flintoff, but the goodbyes were all said a long time ago

Graeme Swann might not have meant to sound churlish when asked, on the eve of the third ODI against Pakistan, to wax lyrical about the career of the newly retired Andrew Flintoff, but seeing as he's a man who has mastered the art of weighing his words, not least through his 140-character updates on Twitter, it's hard to believe that his lack of sentiment was an accident.

"It's sad, but so be it," was one of Swann's curt appraisals, while his declaration that Flintoff wasn't as good as Botham was delivered with a bluntness that would not, surely, have been applied had his return to the dressing room been a possibility. Then there was Swann's defence of the progress that England have made in Flintoff's absence. The team hasn't lost a rubber since he left the scene, and tomorrow they bid for their sixth series win across six different formats in this summer alone. "We're doing just fine without him," was the gist of the message.

Life goes on, even when talismanic sportsmen such as Flintoff leave the scene, but the lack of sentiment that has accompanied his final, final goodbye speaks volumes for the extent to which his era is already ancient history. The best part of 13 months have elapsed since Flintoff signed off on his Test career on the morning after the 2009 Ashes and headed off for surgery on his problematic right knee. At his farewell press conference in Tower Hill, as he chugged ostentatiously on a can of Red Bull, he was full of bluff assertions that his best was yet to come in one-day cricket, though few who witnessed him that day shared such optimism.

Yes, there's a sadness that comes with the passing of a career that, in its pomp, embodied everything that is wonderful about sport at the highest level: the guts, the athleticism, the outrageous skill - particularly when cranking up the pace in the 2005 Ashes with a hint of reverse-swing to complement his bruising line of attack. But above all in Flintoff's case it was his down-to-earth qualities that endeared him to the nation. He became the people's champion precisely because every man in the country saw shades of himself in Flintoff's journey from the pub to the pedestal (and ultimately to the pedalo).

But equally, there's only so much applause that can be milked for any one performance, and right now, five years on from his defining hour, Flintoff is milking it... bad. If he does go on to do the pantomime season - and Ladbrokes are already offering odds of 2-1 that he does - it can only be hoped there's a bloke waiting in the wings with a shepherd's crook to hoick him off-stage at the curtain call. Great performance and all that, Fred, but our hands are sore from clapping. Could you, please, just go now? (The answer to that, incidentally, is no... despite the finality of today's announcement.)

Flintoff's statistics do little justice to the magnificence of his finest hours, but neither do they lie as shamelessly as his cheerleaders might have you believe. He debuted in 1998 as an unready and overweight 20-year-old, and started to fizzle out long before he turned 30, from roughly the moment he ploughed his dicky ankle into the Lord's turf while striving for victory in a 50-over bowling spell against Sri Lanka in 2006.

His highlights reel will make glorious and wistful viewing in years to come, no doubt, but the bald truth is that in 11 years at the highest level, he was immense for precisely three. His halcyon days stretched from the summer of 2003 to the spring of 2006, in which time he scored four of his five hundreds and claimed two of his three five-fors in 38 Tests, while improving his batting and bowling averages from a ropey 31.77 and 32.78 to a top-class 41.30 and 27.78 respectively.

Either side of that, however, Flintoff drifted off into mediocrity, either through his own youthful indifference to the rigours of sportsmanship (in 21 Tests leading up to the hernia that ruled him out of the 2002-03 Ashes, he averaged 19.48 and 47.15), or latterly through the refusal of his body to put up with his punishing method of attack (in his final 20 Tests until retirement he averaged 26.37 and 37.25). It was all or nothing for Fred, which only enhanced the excitement about the moments in which he came good.

But why then does his retirement leave so many so cold? Perhaps it's not true for the wider sporting public, who still revere him, but those who've watched him at close quarters for the majority of his career baulk at the man he's become in recent years. Like cricket's version of David Beckham, Flintoff's undoubted gift for his chosen sport has been superseded by a penchant for self-promotion - to such an extent that the myth is now of greater significance than the fact, or indeed the stats.

Flintoff is, after all, Britain's first bona fide celebrity cricketer, and in the current climate that means he is better placed than most to rake it in. Whereas Mark Ramprakash, Darren Gough and Phil Tufnell are known to the wider British public as reality TV-show champions who also happened to play cricket once upon a time, Flintoff's heroics in 2005 were the reality show of choice in that remarkable summer. And the knock-on effect is still relevant five years down the line. As Swann remarked, tongue mostly in cheek: "Thanks to Fred, I'm loaded!"

It was a jokey but somewhat cutting comment. For while it is Flintoff's incontrovertible right to translate his fame into fortune, the manner in which he has done so seems entirely at odds with the endearing youngster Swann recalled from their Under-10 encounters in the 1980s. Somewhere along the line, the salt-of-the-earth Preston lad has transmogrified into a global-brand-endorsing tax exile, whose shameless willingness to be photographed in a range of Puma sweatshirts or while supping on endless cans of Red Bull has attracted the attention of Private Eye, a satirical magazine that rarely misses the opportunity to prick an inflated ego.

The Flintoff who shone intermittently in the 2009 Ashes may have been far removed from the action man who rampaged through 2005, but the contrast in his demeanour was stark, particularly during his moments of triumph. His five-wicket haul at Lord's was glorious in its defiance, given that the nature of his knee injury could not be disguised as he trudged back to his mark between deliveries, but the heroism of the moment was curdled by his entirely contrived (and wince-inducing) Jesus-on-the-cross celebration. Likewise his habit of showing the sponsor's label of his bat for every landmark - although hardly an issue during that particular series - had long been an affront to those who value spontaneity in their sportsmen. Particularly from someone as naturally unfettered as Flintoff.

There's only so much applause that can be milked for any one performance, and right now, five years on from his defining hour, Flintoff is milking it... bad

Furthermore, at the moment of outright victory, as the Ashes were reclaimed amid emotional (yet strangely underwhelming) scenes at The Oval last August, Flintoff's first instinct was not to cavort with his colleagues like the heart and soul of the team that he had once been. Instead he turned first to the beaten Australians, Mike Hussey and Ben Hilfenhaus, shaking their hands solemnly before slowly joining in with the celebrations.

Such sportsmanship, you might suggest, evoking memories of that genuinely touching moment at Edgbaston, when Flintoff broke off from his gallivanting to console the beaten Brett Lee. Others, of course, would suggest that that was precisely the point. After all, even the best-mannered Aussie in the world would put their own team first in such a moment.

Too many of Flintoff's final moments have been of this look-at-me variety, whereas the Fred of old cared more about how his efforts impacted on the wider team performance. When he announced his retirement on the eve of the Lord's Test last summer, for instance, eyebrows were raised about his thunder-stealing timing. And similar criticisms were voiced at The Oval today, even as a tumultuous climax to the County Championship was being contested at Flintoff's alma mater, Old Trafford. It may well be the case that he got the bad news from his doctor a day earlier and wanted to vent it at the first opportunity, but it's hard to believe it was a coincidence.

Personally, I sat watching the closing overs in the Oval press-box while writing my preview for Friday's ODI. Alongside me was a colleague from one of the red-top tabloids, who had hoped against hope to be able to devote his precious page lead to Nottinghamshire's last-ditch triumph. But the cult of Flintoff bumped all other cricket to one side - not least, of course, England's bid for victory in a one-day campaign that has already been massively overshadowed.

It would be nice to sign off by saying, "Fred, we'll miss you." But the sad thing is, the Flintoff who captured the nation's hearts said his farewells long ago.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Alex on September 20, 2010, 8:18 GMT

    Don't listen to the criticism you have suffered for this article Andrew - the wool is obviously still over some people's eyes. I personally think that journalism should be multi-dimensional and focused on promoting the truth, not cliched, populist rubbish as many here seem to advocate. Well done for daring to write the truth about Flintoff, it certainly makes me respect you as a writer.

  • Geoff on September 20, 2010, 0:40 GMT

    You'll be telling us next that Frank Tyson was useless as well

  • J Ranjith on September 19, 2010, 11:05 GMT

    I guess Flintoff has polarised opinions. The beauty is everyone's point is very valid. But I would like to clarify one point - Why is he staying in Dubai now? Is it because its duty-free? Can anybody throw some light on this, may be I'm missing the truth here. If he lives there for that reason, this article would be very perfect whatever churlish and ill-timed it might be.You can't earn from Red Bull making every British to purchase and you can't escape from paying taxes in times of economic depressions. It could mean that all the heroics he had been doing all were for the money. If he has announced retirement and later he moved to elsewhere, no one cares, but now he has lost all the pride. He did his best to create a new England team and Swann should be speaking with little gratefulness - who knows how long he would be successful - but Flintoff's life has been a contradiction and do not look true to Cricket or his Country. He also seems to be not a "citizen" first in a team of exiles.

  • Wayne on September 19, 2010, 10:39 GMT

    Freddie was a true gentleman and a fierce competitor. He played to entertain and in this day and age you get paid huge amounts if you can draw a crowd. He definitely did. With Pietersen he beat Australia in 2005 but as captain got smashed in the return series. I do want to state that the most intense moments I watched on a cricket pitch came from this guy. His battle with Gilchrist in 2005 which he won, his battle with Kallis in the last series which he won again and then against the Aussies again in 2009... This guy was not the most athletic but showed what could be done by adding a brain to guts and determination. Maybe he was overrated but I still enjoyed watching him play... even if as a South African he blitzed us a few times... Still remember him coming in against Donald and Pollock on his debut with England at 2/4... and he held his own... Thanx Fred... People may diss you but noyone could erase the memories u provided!

  • S on September 19, 2010, 8:58 GMT

    CHURLISH, PETULANT and most certainly this article is what it accuses Flintoff of - Mr. Miller you are a good writer and people will read you, you dont need to stoop to these levels.

  • Dummy4 on September 19, 2010, 7:19 GMT

    Mr Miller , 2006 in India. I watched the match at the Brabourne stadium . The senseless Indian fans screaming abuse at him as he frustrated them with the bat for a whole day, the fourth with an amazingly disciplined performance, ensuring that England piled up a lead of 300 odd and won their first match in India in a while. He had it all , talent, perseverance and a huge heart. He was just the victim of injury. A sad day, but not as sad as 2009 when we knew we would never see him on the Test scene again.

  • arjun on September 19, 2010, 1:29 GMT

    Great and bold article. It is really hard to argue against cold facts. Cold facts are as this article points out he was mediocre for say 90% of his career. He was just above average for 10% for his career and seeing his lack of talent i would say that for those moments he got lucky. Highly overrated player. Cricket is much better without such characters.

  • Peter on September 18, 2010, 23:15 GMT

    Thanks LancsTwins. To focus on Fred trying, or being told to flog Red Bull is missing the point. Completely. Fred was what every little kid wanted to be. Every naff 2nd XI club player like me fantasises about being. Impact. Run in and bowl it as fast as you can. Hit it as far and as high as you can. Stand at 2nd slip - make the excellent look easy. Watch as your 2nd slip grasses the same. Encourage....

    I can see why lots of cricket watchers around the world might think of him as being over-rated. StatisticallyJacques Kallis is by far the greater all rounder. Fine. I'd rather watch the selfless Fred or Afridi or Sehwag or Lara or Gilchrist or Gayle for their sense of adventure.

    Kids in England will be crying today because their hero isn't going to play any more.

    Be fair to Andrew Miller his output is usually good and he seems peeved that his work on an article has been made obsolete by the timing of Fred's retirement. But he's the only one crying about that today..

  • Darren on September 18, 2010, 21:38 GMT

    Bravo Mr Miller. Freddie, the great English, well why has he has become a tax exile then, leaving the rest of us to pay off the national deficit.

  • Brian on September 18, 2010, 19:54 GMT

    Well, Mr Miller, quite an unpopular article, isn't it? I wonder if you'll learn from this? Probably all you'll learn is that sensationalism gets readers and morality can go hang.

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