The Freddie factor

Andrew Flintoff and David Beckham may not have the same sort of bank balance, but there are plenty of similarities. They are both iconic sports figures who have been national heroes, and their ankles have created almost as many stories as their exploits on the field. As Beckham jetted in from his make-believe life in Los Angeles to play in England's friendly against Germany, with question marks over his fitness, Flintoff finally made his return to international colours after another rehabilitation process.

But while Beckham played to mixed reviews at Wembley, Flintoff's performances in the opening two one-day internationals against India reinforced how vital he is to England.

Which is why, when he crashed into an advertising hoarding at Bristol, everyone began to fear the worst. "He's hurt," the TV commentators gloomily pronounced, and the cameras started to focus on his grimacing face after each follow-through. Within minutes word had been received that he was "feeling discomfort behind his right knee". It was almost a relief. Not the ankle again.

Whatever pain Flintoff was feeling didn't stop him collecting a career-best 5 for 56, commendable figures on a day when 649 runs were scored in ideal batting conditions.

In two matches Flintoff has brought a different dimension to England's one-day attack. Being thrashed for 329 in an innings may not seem the ideal supporting evidence, but without Flintoff the carnage would likely have been even greater. At will he was able to adapt his role from early-innings enforcer to late-overs death bowler. None of the other England bowlers have that skill, but with Flintoff back they have the ideal player to learn from.

He is the go-to man for any captain. Had Flintoff been around during the Tests, Michael Vaughan would surely have turned to him repeatedly, whether for a short, incisive burst of pace, a sustained short-pitched attack on Sourav Ganguly, or a swift finish to the tail.

Paul Collingwood, who at times appeared short of ideas during his first series in charge against West Indies, has already realised how different captaining England is with Flintoff around.

Each time Collingwood called on his allrounder at Bristol, Flintoff delivered. He broke the opening stand by removing Ganguly, was recalled and bounced out Sachin Tendulkar for 99 (dodgy umpiring decision or not), and completed his overs when the slog was on, holding India back to a total England nearly chased down.

At will Flintoff was able to adapt his role from early-innings enforcer to late-overs death bowler. None of the other England bowlers have that skill, but with Flintoff back they have the ideal player to learn from

However, the passage of play that best encapsulated Flintoff's return came in the opening match at the Rose Bowl. It was the first time he had appeared in a home ODI since July 2005 (when England had yet to regain the Ashes) and it was time to make a point. India were already in tatters at 34 for 4, but there was no threat of Flintoff taking things easy. He immediately peppered Mahendra Singh Dhoni with bouncers - clearly a pre-planned attack - and could have struck early when Dhoni gloved a pull high to Matt Prior.

Flintoff, though, had overstepped - some might say it was symptomatic of his lack of bowling, but it's a problem he has always had - and Dhoni lived to fight on. But the wry smile on Flintoff's face as he turned back to his mark suggested he didn't mind too much. He had waited a long time to ping the ball down at 90mph, and had another chance to make Dhoni hop around.

The opening burst ended after four overs, but Dhoni was still batting when Flintoff return for a second spell. Again, there wasn't much in Dhoni's half of the pitch. One bouncer whistled past the gloves and a loud appeal was turned down. Next ball, a repeat, except this time it made contact with Dhoni's hopeful swipe. Flintoff let out his primeval roar - a release of tension after months in gym and on the physio's bench.

Centuries from Ian Bell and Alastair Cook overshadowed that performance, but with the flak flying at Bristol there was no escaping Flintoff's presence.

Even during England's depressing winter of an Ashes whitewash and poor World Cup, his bowling rarely lost its edge. He ran in consistently, whether it was in a Test match drubbing or a one-day hiding. However, bowling is only half his job.

When he swung Ramesh Powar to deep midwicket on Friday it highlighted again his batting slump. Flintoff hasn't consistently fired in ODIs since 2004, when, ironically, injury prevented him bowling during the one-dayers against New Zealand and West Indies. The extra time spent working on his batting brought back-to-back centuries at Bristol and Lord's, followed later that season by 99 against India and 104 against Sri Lanka.

Only if he can recapture that sort of form will England really feel they have their allrounder back. Unlike Beckham, Flintoff believes he still has his best years ahead of him. Time will tell, but England and their supporters will be crossing their fingers.