August 2005

Andrew Flintoff

Alan Townsend relives with Stephen Chalke his 130-mile round trip by bike as a 12-year-old to see the Headingley Test of 1934

The new school would have been appalled. Two days before a Test match England's premier allrounder was on a stag night, dragging around a huge bottle of vodka to implement fines in his role as enforcer for the evening. Accompanied by the England team analyst Malcolm Ashton and physiotherapist Dean Conway, Andrew Flintoff was in his element during a raucous evening with the English press corps.

Andrew Flintoff's autobiography Being Freddie is due in October © Getty Images

Critics would tell you that his eagerness to become involved in that alcohol-fuelled evening in Wellington three years ago was evidence at that stage of his career of his inability to knuckle down to the disciplines required to succeed in international cricket. Yet things are not always what they seem, as has nearly always been the case with the Preston-born all-rounder known almost universally as Fred.

Yes, he was an active participant on that evening but, while he was only too happy to dish out the vodka, he remained teetotal and disappeared to bed at a respectable hour so he was fit and able for practice the following morning. Memories are a little hazy but the evening provides an insight into a determination and professionalism which are often hidden from public gaze.

For all the larger-than-life stories of excess which have followed Flintoff throughout his career, many of which by his own admission are true, he remains a deeply committed cricketer for England and his beloved Lancashire. Ever since that now infamous dressing down from his management team of Neil Fairbrother and Chubby Chandler in the Old Trafford dressing room four years ago he could never be accused of lacking focus.

His journey from that low point to the professional cricketer he is now has been well documented, as has his rigorous rehabilitation programme under the supervision of the straight-talking physio Dave Roberts. That lung-busting schedule included regular swimming and running up fierce hills around Bolton in the aftermath of his winter ankle operation, which enabled him to return quicker than expected, for the Test series against Bangladesh.

That comeback, and his turnaround as a cricketer, has been achieved by allowing those close to him to take control over organising his life away from cricket. His diary is run on a daily basis by Fairbrother, who operates out of the International Sports Management Offices a few miles away from Flintoff's Cheshire home, allowing him time to concentrate fully on his cricket and maintaining his high levels of fitness.

Everything from interviews to sponsors' requests and endorsements are handled by Fairbrother, who also organises all things from Flintoff's household bills to replacing the numerous mobile phones his former Lancashire team-mate appears to get through every summer. One was lost during his own stag weekend in Budapest earlier this year, last seen floating down the Danube, while the current one often stays off to give him what he describes as "peace and quiet".

For all the ECB's desire to market players like Flintoff as thoroughly modern cricketers - part of its strategy for 10% of the population to recognise three "cricket heroes" by 2009 - he remains something of a throwback. He dislikes mobile phones and their intrusion to such an extent that he often asks people to ring his wife Rachael if they want to contact him.

He is also a keen advocate in mixing with umpires and the opposition after the day's play, a habit perhaps instilled in him from his early days playing league cricket in Preston alongside his father Colin and brother Chris. Flintoff enjoys the banter and discussion of cricket with fellow competitors but that should not be mistaken for an absence of competitiveness even against his close friends; he was still annoyed several hours after being dismissed by Steve Harmison to a contentious leg-before appeal playing for Lancashire against Durham recently, his sense of injustice heightened by the England fast bowler's permanent smile during the lunch break.

Flintoff, for all his dedication to cricket, has also had a change in focus over the last year following his marriage to Rachael and the birth of their daughter Holly. He believes his family life has given him a new perspective on his cricket, even if it has got increasingly difficult to enjoy public outings without recognition. At 6ft 4in with blond hair and sporting a stud earring, it is perhaps hard not to attract attention on shopping trips to Manchester.

But his increased public profile has not really altered his social circle. His closest friends are still members of the Lancashire dressing room and players he has developed alongside in England age-group teams like Harmison, Robert Key and Michael Vaughan. He retains a strong base of friends from his formative years in Preston, too, and during the tour to West Indies two winters ago socialised with them even when he had more glamorous offers to attend yacht parties. His performances against South Africa and West Indies for the last two summers have firmly established him as the most talked about cricketer in the country. That popularity has prompted him to start work on his autobiography called Being Freddie, which is due out this October. He hopes to crown it with a final chapter entitled "Winning the Ashes".

Myles Hodgson is cricket correspondent of the Press Association and is collaborating with Flintoff on his autobiography