Finally, farewell to a fine self-promoter
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.
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.