Andrew FlintoffPhoto © CricInfo Ltd
Although still only 22 Andrew Flintoff knows that now is the time to turn his potential into match winning performances. He leaves with the England squad for Kenya in a few days time, with plenty of questions to answer. He played a minor walk on role in the West Indies series (28 runs and one wicket during the Edgbaston debacle), and then attracted the wrath of the tabloids for his weight and diet during a season that he'd probably rather forget.
An injury shadow always seem to hang over him: his enormous frame seems unable to support bowling for any length of time, and a Test batting average of 16 excludes him as a specialist batsman. Nor will it be enough to bowl a few overs of medium pace, as England now expect wickets from their 4th seamer. Cork and White are seemingly established in the Test team, and both have proved they can bowl out sides at this level. With Tudor pressing for inclusion too, Flintoff knows he has a challenge ahead of him to regain a regular international spot.
"It was awesome to watch them beat the West Indies, and when I go away I probably won't start as first choice in the side, which I accept because Craig White has done wonderfully well," Flintoff commented.
"Dominic Cork has also done well coming back in and I don't expect to get into the side straight away. It's a challenge for me, and I want to get involved. There has been such a tremendous surge of interest around the country because of what's happened against West Indies, and as a cricketer you want to be part of that."
Flintoff has undergone fairly drastic treatment in order to be able to put his injury problems in the past. In order the stop the pain entirely he has been operated on to numb the nerves in the affected area of his back. "They've looked to operate and all sorts of different things, and they think this numbing procedure is the best thing for me at the moment," he says. "I've had 10 cortisone injections now, and everyone says that I shouldn't have too many of those. I was apprehensive about the last one, but I went along and had it done. I've decided not to have any more, and I'm going to remain firm on that because I'm only 22 and I have to think about the future."
He has also spent a great deal of time in the gym, and with the help of a special diet and the advice of rugby league star Steve Hampson, it is hoped that he will emerge fitter than ever before, and perhaps, in order to put less pressure on his back, thinner too.
His weight has attracted much criticism in the past. He is, undeniably, a big man, and in many ways this is his strength. The force with which he hits the ball, his rocket like throw, and his sometimes genuinely quick bowling are all testament to the power, allied to the co-ordination at his command.
He does also posses agility however. There is no way he could take the stunning slip catches that he regularly does, without a natural athleticism, and a youthful hobbie of gymnastics again demonstrates that whatever his appearance, he is more than the beer swilling, kebab munching man portrayed by some of the papers during the summer.
The criticism hurt him, particularly the personal nature of much of it, and he admits it affected his form. "I got a lot of stick," he confessed, "and I didn't know where it came from. I wasn't playing particularly well, and I probably didn't deserve my place in the side. If the criticism had been about my form I could have accepted it; what I couldn't understand were the personal attacks on me."
"Halfway through the summer my form took a big dip which may have been as a result of the publicity. It did bother me, and hurt my friends and family. It got to the stage that it was starting to prey on my mind, and I was worrying about it all the time. I was given a back support to wear, but I was worried that by wearing it, I'd make myself look bigger. I'm just trying to put it all behind me now and concentrate on cricket."
Everyone can see that Flintoff has the ability, and everyone with the best interests of English cricket at heart will want him to succeed. To do so he needs to develop the attractive cameos into match winning innings, and stay fit long enough when bowling to learn new skills. If he could add an outswinger to his pace and bounce he'd be transformed into a world class player over night. He's played 14 innings in 9 Tests now, and knows from the example of the equally talented Ben Hollioake that he needs to repay the investment the selectors have made in him soon, or else slip further behind in the reckoning. Kenya would be a good place to start.