Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo
Ricky Ponting believes Andrew Flintoff's retirement announcement could prove a distraction for England throughout the Ashes series, much like Steve Waugh's "farewell tour" disrupted the Australians during their 2003-04 home series against India. Ponting also predicted that his opposite number, Andrew Strauss, could struggle to maintain England's focus, should national sentimentality regarding Flintoff's impending Test departure overshadow the deeds of the team.
Waugh's decision to inform the public of his retirement plans ahead of the Indian series resulted in a city-by-city farewell procession that consumed the Australian sporting public for an entire summer. The team's focus, as with the rest of the country, steadily drifted away from Australia's fortunes against a driven Indian side to Waugh's exit from international cricket. Sourav Ganguly's men drew the series, and might well have won it if not for Waugh's final day heroics in Sydney.
Ponting, who assumed the Australian captaincy after that Test in 2004, feels there are parallels between the early retirement announcements of Waugh and Flintoff, despite the latter confirming his intention to continue in the limited overs formats. Adored by his supporters with rare fervour, Flintoff will now embark on a five-week, four-stadium, three-city tour that, according to the Australian skipper, could overshadow the Test series in the hearts and minds of the English public and team.
"Knowing the stature he has in the game in England, I can see it turning into that," Ponting said. "Whenever he plays a game ... you can see that the fans here are very passionate about watching Andrew Flintoff play. If they know that it's his last chance to play here and at Edgbatson and Headingley, then I'm sure there'll be a bit of a circus around it. If that is the case, it will create some distractions, but that's not for us to worry about.
"[Waugh and Flintoff] are probably similar sort of figures in their countries. Everyone in Australia loved Steve Waugh with the way he played the game and lead the side. We talked long and hard before that first Test match of that series about making sure it didn't turn into a farewell tour for Steve, but as hard as we tried and as hard as he tried to not make it that way, sure enough it became very heavily focussed on everything he did."
The Australians are uncertain what role, if any, Flintoff will play at Lord's and beyond this summer. The England all-rounder underwent a fitness test on Wednesday, however team management will not make a definitive decision on whether he is to play the second Test until the morning of the match.
With emotions running high after Wednesday's retirement announcement, Ponting is hopeful the fall-out will have a destabilising effect on Andrew Strauss and his team. "If he ends up playing the remainder of the series then I'm sure there'll some outside distractions for the England team to deal with, no matter whether Andrew wanted it that way or not," he said. "I've been in teams where it's happened in Australia. It can be distracting, not just for the person involved but probably for the captain as well."
Ponting described Flintoff as a player whose importance to the England cause could not be gauged by personal statistics. His low-30s average with bat and ball in 76 Tests suggests Flintoff has been a competent, if not dominant all-rounder, but Ponting believes his inspirational performances against Australia (2005) and India (2006), coupled with the selection flexibility his all-round skills have allowed, were worthy of higher praise.
"If you look through his bare statistics they probably don't read that flatteringly, but as far as someone who has an impact on how a team plays and performs, then he's got to be right up there," he said. "He seemed to be one of those guys that everyone enjoyed playing with. He played the game in great spirit, with everything he does he's always got a smile on his face. When we got him at this best in 2005, he was a match-winning player for them throughout that series. I've enjoyed every contest I've had with him. I'll probably have a few more before my career's over as well."