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Flintoff's sobering experience

All too often, the press and public in England are guilty of what is known as "tall-poppy syndrome". They build a star up, particularly if he is a sportsman, and then hack him down with a vengeance the moment he oversteps the mark.
With Andrew Flintoff, the pattern has been somewhat different. Invariably the tall poppying has come not from sanctimonious strangers, but from within his closest circle of friends, advisors and team-mates. His immense natural talent, allied to his fundamental decency and some very human failings, endear him to all. But every once in a while, it leaves him wide open to some very, very public humiliations.

Flintoff's awakening as a cricketer of substance came after his last almighty carpeting. In 2001, overweight and under-motivated after his premature Test baptism in 1998, he was given - in his own words - "a bollocking" by his management team of Chubby Chandler and Neil Fairbrother, his former Lancashire team-mate. "You're wasting your talent" was the jist of the exchange, and suitably chastened, Flintoff knuckled down, toughened up and set about becoming the cricketer of substance that he is today.

Few characters in England are as universally loved as Freddie, or so tolerated for their transgressions. When, on September 13, 2005, after securing the Ashes in the most memorable series of all time, Flintoff managed - to near-unanimous approval - to make binge-drinking cool again, with a 24-hour bender that took in an all-night stand in the team hotel, an open-top bus ride through the streets of London, and an audience with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street that may or may not have involved a urination in a flower-bed.

Had he been a footballer, the rug might have been pulled from under his feet there and then. But he was not a footballer. He was Freddie, the salt-of-the-earth people's champion who seemed immune from the tabloid sting that awaits most sportsman who overstep the mark. When, in the small hours of that morning, his friend Steve Harmison scrawled "twat" on his unconscious forehead, the reaction from the red-tops was remarkable. The guilty photo was quietly set to one side, and gathers dust to this day in some forgotten Fleet Street picture library.

It seemed that a tacit understanding had been reached with the media. Flintoff never intended to be a wild-child, he just ended up that way sometimes - a victim of his own gargantuan appetite for alcohol-fuelled bonhomie. Marriage and parenthood curbed many of his excesses, and for a glorious 18 months made him the most complete cricketer in the world, but the pressures of captaincy seem to have reawakened that dormant thirst. Whether this classifies as alcoholism is for him to admit, rather than for others to suggest, but as his Lancashire team-mate Stuart Law once put it, you know when you'd been "Freddied". "He'd give David Boon's 52 cans a real nudge on a London to Melbourne trip," Law said in the build-up to the 2005 Ashes. "I reckon he'd do it quite easily."

"He wouldn't be stupid before a Test match," added Law, but a one-day game? Well, that's something else entirely. England's dismal year in coloured clothing (the CB Series notwithstanding) has had more than just a whiff of stale beer hanging over it - most notably in India last April, when England's phenomenal victory in the third Test in Mumbai was the prelude to an appalling run of defeats in an over-long and over-taxing one-day series.

In fact Vaughan, in his autobiography, had openly questioned Flintoff's aptitude for leadership, pointing out quite rightly that a captain has to be a breed apart from his charges, a man with a hint of the bastard in his blood

That Mumbai victory, in hindsight, was probably the worst thing that has happened to England all year. It was glorious for as long as the lustre lasted, for it was a reaffirmation of Flintoff's inspirational qualities. He had been handed the captaincy on a wing and a prayer, following Michael Vaughan's knee injury and Marcus Trescothick's emotional meltdown, despite some serious reservations from within the England set-up. In fact Vaughan, in his autobiography, had openly questioned Flintoff's aptitude for leadership, pointing out quite rightly that a captain has to be a breed apart from his charges, a man with a hint of the bastard in his blood.

Flintoff has none of that, but he is undoubtedly stubborn. His reinstatement as captain for the Ashes, despite Andrew Strauss's impressive marshalling of a new-look side against Pakistan, involved a fair amount of arm-twisting of the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, and throughout England's guileless series whitewash, he stuck wearily to his belief that he could ask nothing more of his troops, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even when Vaughan returned as leader, England appeared scared of offending Flintoff, and instead fudged the issue of the vice-captaincy once again, blindly believing that Vaughan's fitness would be sustained. It wasn't.

That unexpected victory in the CB Series meant Flintoff, once again, had to be maintained as Vaughan's deputy. But now, however, he has indulged in one drunken exploit too many, and the unequivocal stance that has been taken against him is proof, perhaps, that this was the excuse that the management has been looking for all along. The last word, as so often, has to go to Ian Botham. "I think it's an over-reaction," he said. "Did people complain in 2005 when we won the Ashes? Some people go to bed at 10.30pm tired, other people like to go for a drink."

Some people - like Botham, like Flintoff - are larger than life. It makes them incredible cricketers but irrational strategists. But, in both cases, to be slapped back down to the ranks and given a point or ten to prove might just be the spur that their excessive talent needed.