Bloemfontein, October 2010. With Zimbabwe chasing a mountainous 351 against South Africa on a chilly Free State evening, Sean Williams chips to long-off to be third out with the score just past 120. With that, Grant Flower rises and skips swiftly down the steps leading from the players' dressing rooms and onto the floodlit outfield, a bat in his hand and the number 68 on his back for the first time in six years. There is tension in his movements as, stepping gingerly across the turf, he pumps his arms and practises a few drives to get the blood flowing and quell the butterflies in his stomach. But as he approaches the crease one spies the trademark bolshie bounce in his step, chin pointed slightly upward, elbows out. He's back.

Flower's surprise return to national service with Zimbabwe at the age of 39 brackets him with the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan, Steve Tikolo and Canada's John Davison as one of the international game's senior citizens, with all the wealth of experience and weight of years that the designation brings.

He admits to "nerves, quite a few nerves" as he remembers his walk to the wicket that night, but adds: "I also felt proud to be back playing for Zimbabwe. I never thought it would happen again."

He surely wasn't alone in thinking so. Rewind to May 2004: The standoff between the Zimbabwe Cricket Union and the rebel players was locked in stalemate. Just when it appeared that mediation might lead to a resolution of the dispute the Zimbabwe board sacked all 15 of the rebels, claiming they were in breach of their contracts, and told them to hand in the keys for their sponsored cars. Flower, who had emerged as the group's spokesman during the clash, summed up the situation thus: "It means that this is the end. I don't know what happens now. All I know is that we are fired."

How things have changed since those dark days. Not only is Flower back in the fold, Heath Streak - whose sacking as national captain sparked the rebel saga - has also returned as bowling coach for the national side. The ZCU has been rebranded as Zimbabwe Cricket; a domestic competition once thought to be in terminal decline has been given a new lease of life, and in November its Twenty20 cup will feature 20 foreign players and teams coached by the likes of Allan Donald and Jason Gillespie. It was a conversation with Alistair Campbell, Flower's captain in 103 games for Zimbabwe and now a national selector, that convinced him to come back.

"Alistair phoned me about a year ago and put it into my head," he explained when I met him in the glittering Sandton Sun hotel in Johannesburg ahead of the third one-dayer in Benoni. "I still had a year to go in my contract with Essex, and I still had my level four coaching certificate to do. So I said, 'Look, I've got things to finish off here in England, but I'm definitely keen and I'd love to come back to Zimbabwe and help out if I could.' It's exciting, and there are a lot of good players to work with and a lot of young potential. I'm really looking forward to the challenge.

"There are some good people involved now. I left on quite bad terms with a lot of people, but that's in the past now. I think things are a lot more positive in the country as a whole. So I'd like to try and contribute to that and help it. Time will tell, but at this stage things seem really good and I'm enjoying it so far."

While it had been understood that Flower would be taking up a coaching role in Zimbabwe for some time before the end of his sixth, and final, season with Essex, his entry into the playing XI in South Africa took many by surprise. He had recorded one of his finest domestic seasons for the county before his departure - his 527 runs at 65.87, including two centuries and a strike rate of 95.64, in the CB40 was the fourth-highest tally in the competition - but after a five-week break admitted to feeling "a little off the pace" in his comeback international innings: a boundary-less 24-ball 13.

"I think it could also be a conflict of interest. If I don't do that well and I'm trying to get my point across and tell guys, 'Do this, but don't follow me if I don't do well"

Whether it was nerves, the quality of the bowling, or a struggle against the inevitable slowing of reactions and dulling of the eye that comes with age, Flower's innings in Bloemfontein was a distinctly scratchy affair. But on a bright Potchefstroom morning two days later, he appeared much more at ease, whipping Rusty Theron authoritatively to the midwicket boundary in a run-a-ball 22 and putting on 47 with Tatenda Taibu at better than five an over to breathe life into Zimbabwe's innings after they had slipped to 60 for 3.

In a measure of how relaxed he was at the crease Flower actually started calling in Afrikaans - shouting "Wag!", "Ja!" or "Nee!" - in the course of that innings, as he had always done when batting with his older brother. Taibu has batted with Flower many times in the past and was clearly unfazed by the language of his calls as the two scampered several quick ones and twos. They seem to share a connection off the pitch too, and some days after our initial interview I spotted them in the lobby of the team hotel, deeply engrossed in a game of chess.

But they will surely not take the field together many more times, and Flower hastened to explain that he doesn't know how much he's actually going to be playing for Zimbabwe. "Originally my job was to get involved just in the coaching. But I've been persuaded to play a bit. So we'll see what happens. Take it game by game or tour by tour and just go from there. I had a very good one-day season for Essex, one of my best ones to be honest, and I wouldn't have come back and played if I hadn't been in that sort of form. So that did have a big bearing on my decision when Alistair asked me. Obviously that's county cricket and this is international, but if you're a good enough player you can adapt, even at my age.

"They wanted me to play, to start off, so I could help the guys out in the middle. With my experience, hopefully form some partnerships and things like that. But I think it could also be a conflict of interest. If I don't do that well and I'm trying to get my point across and tell guys, 'Do this, but don't follow me if I don't do well.' That's what I've got to be careful of.

"But I'm coming to the end of my playing days. After playing first-class cricket for 20 years at a high standard, in the end you've had enough of the pressure. It gets quite tiring and gets you down a bit. So it's nice to go into something fresh. I've only been in the coaching role for a short while. So I might meet other coaches who tell me, 'Wait until you get a top position, or wait until you get into it a bit more, there's even more pressure'."

With 67 Tests and 221 one-day internationals to his name, Flower is Zimbabwe's most capped player. His veteran ranking is cemented by the 188 first-class and 365 list A matches, with over 10,000 runs in both formats, to his name, but there is something ageless in his visage, a certain innocence in his blue-green eyes that belies the years. There is no escaping the fact that he is practically a pensioner in sporting terms, however, and despite the tough-as-nails grit behind that baby face and the athletic surety in the way he holds himself, time is catching up with him. Were it not for his almost religious devotion to his fitness and training regime, he would never have lasted this long.

"The physical and mental both run alongside each other," he explained. "If you're physically fit, I think it definitely helps the mental side of your game and your life. It keeps you positive. But just to compete at this level you've got to be physically fit and you've got to give yourself the best chance, and that's something I've always tried to do. And I'm 39 years of age, so if I'm not physically fit I haven't got a hope of keeping up with the youngsters, let alone maintaining the skill level."

The seemingly unquenchable drive that keeps him in the gym for longer than anyone else, that sees him swim more laps, take more catches and hit more balls in the nets, springs from Flower's upbringing. His father, Bill, instilled in both him and older brother Andy a fierce work ethic. It is evident in the senior brother's approach to coaching England - a method that has hitherto brought a reclamation of the Ashes and a very first piece of ICC silverware at the World Twenty20 - and is surely one of the main reasons that Grant is still an active cricketer while most of his contemporaries have settled into far more sedentary lifestyles.

"My dad's had a big bearing on my career," he explained. "He pushed us quite hard, but we enjoyed it. It was always my wish to play professional cricket. Not so much my brother's. He decided that after he left school. We played in age groups above us when we were younger, and came to live in South Africa, in Jo'burg, for a while. We played against guys older and bigger than us, and I think that developed us mentally and made us stronger. We got into club cricket in Zimbabwe quite early too, playing with adults when we were still young teenagers. That definitely helped, developing us quickly.

"We played for fun then, Andrew and I, but we pushed ourselves and we wanted to be better than the others. We always practised a lot harder, and spent more time at it. It's always been just the way we were. We wanted to give ourselves the best chance and that was our theory.

While Grant's cricketing pedigree is undoubtedly good, Andy's is great, and the younger Flower spent much of his career in his brother's shadow. With both brothers settling into roles with different teams, it is not impossible that they might meet as opponents at some point in the future and engage in a little sibling rivalry. "We've played against each other quite a bit, in Zimbabwe days," said Flower. "There would be a friendly rivalry, nothing hectic. It's a huge hypothetical, but if it did happen I'd really enjoy that. Him plotting my downfall, whether I was playing or coaching, and me trying to get inside his head and think how he thinks. That would be quite good fun."

There is the slimmest of chances that meeting could happen at the World Cup. Zimbabwe and England are in different groups, but it is not impossible that the Zimbabweans could sneak into the second round - ahead of an out-of-sorts New Zealand perhaps. Is there a final World Cup hurrah left in Flower, a full stop to the playing career of one half of an era-shaping family dynasty in Zimbabwean cricket?

"I'm not sure at this stage. If I'm playing well and not holding anyone else back, anyone younger, and I can fully contribute, then maybe. But if any of those questions aren't answered and there are doubts, then no, I wouldn't want to. And I wouldn't like the thought of people saying, 'Grant Flower is just trying to hold onto something, it's his time to retire and let other people have a go.' I'd hate for people to be saying that. So I've got some decisions to make.

"I'm not really looking at this as unfinished business. If I don't ever play again now, for whatever reason, then so be it. If I just go into coaching, that wouldn't be the end of the world. I'm just happy to help out as much as I can." And it is for such altruism that he would like to be remembered "as a good person who helped others along the way, and who contributed as much to the team as possible both on and off the field. It's as simple as that."