The demeaning of Fred
As luck would have it, as this piece is being written, the television is showing Flintoff walking off at Lord's after a one-day match against West Indies in 2004. The sun is shining, the crowd is cheering and Flintoff, a younger, presumably more contented Flintoff, is beaming with delight as he raises his bat to the crowd. Life does not come much better than this.
He made 123 off 104 balls that day, his highest one-day score, and a year later he was to win a nation's hearts as he helped regain the Ashes. He was the People's Champion: brave, honest, big-hearted, down to earth. He was a man to rouse a dressing room, to play the game with indomitable spirit, to share a beer with when the fray was over. He was the stuff of dreams.
Then came the injuries, the drinking, the enforced retirement at 31, nearly two years ago, and an immediate embracing of the celebrity culture that promised to make the most of his popularity. He has travelled the world as a TV adventurer, risking extreme sports and tracking exotic animals. It is probably swelling the bank balance. I wonder if it is bringing him true satisfaction? Judging from his unprovoked attack on Atherton, he is harbouring deep dissatisfaction.
Fast forward from that sunny day at Lord's eight years or so to a story that first appeared this week in the Diary column of the London Evening Standard, a story that has since been eagerly adopted by agencies and newspapers around the world. Nobody has had time or inclination to investigate it very much. Nobody even knows whether he was provoked into saying it. Flintoff Slags Off Atherton: nothing more to be said.
This is what the Londoner diary reported. You might as well read it in the original, asterisks and all:
"Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff was not mincing his words at the Sky TV party at The Oxo Tower on Tuesday night. Speaking to the Londoner, all his bonhomie turned to scowls when the subject of his erstwhile England colleague, former captain and now Sky TV and Times journalist Michael Atherton, came up.
"He's a p***k," said Flintoff. "He's a f*****g p***k." Why so? "He sits there making judgments about players that are much better than he ever was, believe me, he's a p***k.
"How can he talk about a player like [current England opening batsman] Alastair Cook who is 10 times the player he ever was -- he has a much bigger average and will go on and on. Atherton averaged in the 30s for England and yet he thinks he can judge others."
Asked whether he minded saying this to a journalist, Flintoff, who was accompanied by his glamorous wife Rachel, said: "I don't care. Say what you like. There's no love lost there."
The intention is not to moralise, because many of us can point to the times when we have behaved in a manner we regret, especially in drink. Admiration for Flintoff's England exploits will pass into history and a few ill-advised outbursts are not about to change that.
But Flintoff's boorish comments have become public property. His attack demeans him. He comes over as bitter and resentful, with very little cause. Quite rightly, Atherton has chosen to ignore it. And, most crassly of all, Flintoff timed his personal attack at a party at Sky TV - the very company where Atherton, again quite rightly, is held in such high regard as an insightful, fair-minded and scrupulously independent commentator, not to mention his numerous writing awards. Atherton understands sport. He is sought-after company.
Flintoff's logic - that you are disqualified from criticising anybody who has a better Test record than you do - is hardly original. "How many Test wickets / runs did you get?" has ended more than one conversation from Ian Botham, to mention one of many. But it is facile for all that, a lazy substitute for intelligent thought.
It is a shrewd cricket journalist who recognises where the limit of their knowledge and experience lies, and acts appropriately, but to suggest that Atherton has a limited right to comment upon Alastair Cook (he questioned Cook's worth as a one-day player, an opinion he adapted as Cook responded to widespread criticism by taking his game to new levels) because Cook has a higher batting average is the most extreme version of this theory.
Perhaps the Flintoff Rule could be introduced beyond sport into everyday life: architects could only be assessed by architects who had built more, or taller, buildings; brewers could produce whatever ale they pleased, free from debate, if they had brewed more barrels; and don't even dare to complain about the state of the roads if you have never laid tarmac.
The Londoner diary speculated - and so did everybody else, for want of a better theory - that Flintoff's enmity might stretch back to 2006, when Atherton suggested quite reasonably that he did not think Flintoff was the right man to England captain.
It was an honest assessment that Atherton had every right to make - indeed which his job gave him an obligation to make. As it happened, history proved him absolutely right. Flintoff was broken by the England captaincy, no more so than in a spectacularly failed Ashes defence in 2007.
He slept behind the nets in Adelaide, turned up drunk for a practice in Sydney and ended the winter by falling off a pedalo during a failed World Cup campaign. Duncan Fletcher, then England's coach, felt so betrayed by Flintoff that he would have sacked him in Australia only to fear (without much cause) the media reaction.
There is also a small passage in Atherton's autobiography where he refers to Flintoff's negative effect in the Lancashire dressing room, where they were both team-mates. "With the new brigade of promising cricketers such as Andrew Flintoff came agents, negotiations and contractual squabbles," he wrote. "His demands coincided with an end to the pay structure and thus harmony in the dressing room... It meant the club capitulated weakly to the demands of someone who shouted the loudest."
The passage touches on an uncomfortable truth, that since Flintoff's departure, the England dressing room is also a more united and professional place.
But the reasons for this affair run much deeper. It is probably not as much what Atherton has said as something less easy to define: a stray phrase or expression, a different philosophy of life, a simple clash of personalities. It is a conflict between Atherton, an aesthetic figure as cricketers go, proud in his own beliefs and comfortable in his own self, and Flintoff, straight-thinking lad made good, who has come to need the world of celebrity and yet is somehow made empty by it.
Atherton, a Cambridge University graduate, often agonises over a life given largely to cricket, but he has made the transition from player to analyst with his reputation enhanced. He commanded respect as a player but little public adulation, and he would not have known what to do with it if he had. As an analyst, he has few equals. And he feeds from nobody's trough.
Flintoff not only received the adulation, he has built his life upon it. Since retirement, he has lived on the fringes of cricket, playing out the mythical role of Fred. He has been a captain on sports panel shows, the celebrity face of Morrisons supermarket, a guest commentator (briefly) on the world darts championships.
He was the star of Freddie Flintoff vs The World, in which, according to the promo, you could watch "cricketing legend and ultimate bloke Freddie Flintoff try his hand at some of the most extreme sports and challenges on offer around the world". It is lighthearted, harmless, knockabout stuff, not the sort of thing that Atherton would set his timer for. Nobody would ever call Atherton the "ultimate bloke". He could probably think of few tags more unwelcome.
Flintoff has explored bat caves in Borneo, tracked wallabies in the Australian outback and gone mountain biking for a deodorant company. He has done pretty much everything but comment upon England cricket. If such an offer ever came along, he would also be expected to sit in judgement and to experience the same daily tensions that Atherton et al cope with every day.
As retirement beckoned, Flintoff lived in Dubai for 18 months, tax affairs in hand no doubt, before shifting back to England because he was "missing the English sunshine." When he moved to Surrey, he told Hello! magazine that he was missing the north. "Moving to Surrey is an adjustment in itself," he said. "I'm trying to get used to it, but I've always lived up north or in cities, so it's just as strange for me to be living in the country now."
The programme that caused most discussion was Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport, broadcast in January this year. The subject was clinical depression in sport, and during it Flintoff looked back at the low points of his own career and wondered whether in his lowest moments he might have been clinically depressed.
It was a topic of conversation in dressing rooms and media boxes at the time. Few of those closest to him imagined that he had been clinically depressed. It is to be hoped that his mood as conveyed in the Evening Standard diary was exaggerated or only temporary. But as Flintoff has posed the question about himself in the past, it seems appropriate, as his rage against Atherton receives worldwide attention, to wonder about his welfare now. The Flintoff of our memories should rightly survive into old age.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo