...but the foot is weak and future bleak. The Wisden Cricketer suggests a policy of priorities to get the best out of the hobbled allrounder
Andrew Flintoff was due to have another book published earlier this year. It was to be a captain's diary of the Ashes series in Australia. For obvious reasons it was postponed until after the World Cup. Then came the double embarrassments of Flintoff's drunkenness in St Lucia and England's disorderliness on the field. So there was another delay. Since then a recurrence of Flintoff's ankle problem has kept him from the international field for all but a few 50-over and 20-over matches and the book is on indefinite hold. Its working title was Good Days, Bad Days. There have not been enough good days to justify the enterprise.
This has been the story of Flintoff's year, a year of diminishing returns and fading hopes. It has been a year that has seen him make an alarming transition from national treasure to holy relic. It has been by far his unhappiest time since he was last unable to make the national team on merit in 2001.
Only a few years ago he was indisputably the world's leading all-round cricketer, turning in significant performances in almost every game. Now he is engaged in an almost perpetual battle just to get his body right for action.
His appearance at the recent ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa was frankly pathetic - in the literal sense that it was distressingly inadequate. Even bowling four overs put him in obvious discomfort and his batting was largely inconsequential. In his pomp this format would have been perfect for him. He might have opened the innings or at least batted in the top four. As it was, he was tucked away at No.6 and cleared the ropes twice in five innings.
Afterwards he was withdrawn from the one-day series in Sri Lanka to seek further medical advice. If he is ruled out of the Tests in Sri Lanka in December it will be the fourth Test series in five he will have missed.
Several questions now need answers. Will he ever again be able to bowl 30-odd overs per Test match, as he did in 2004 and 2005? If not, can he command a Test place as a batting allrounder? Will he even play five-day cricket again?
Flintoff says he has plenty of cricket left in him. This is not unreasonable, given that he does not turn 30 until December 6. But a touch of realism would not go amiss. Sir Ian Botham, with whom Flintoff is often compared, did not do a huge amount in the 23 Tests he played after his 30th birthday, averaging 24 with the bat and 46 with the ball.
But right now Flintoff would give a lot just to be guaranteed another 23 Test appearances. If that is to be so, several areas of concern need addressing.
Problem No. 1: bowling fast
Not unusually for a fast bowler, Flintoff has had regular problems with his left foot, the one on which he lands at the point of delivery. He is a big man who puts a lot of effort into his bowling. There is not much guile to his methods but there is always energy; that is how he creates the awkward pace and bounce that make him so difficult to play.
On his first Test tour, to South Africa in 1999-2000, he fractured the foot and since he became a front-line weapon in England's attack he has rarely been free of trouble for long. In early 2005 he underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his left foot. In June 2006 he had surgery to repair ligament damage at the back of the ankle and remove fragments of bone. And in June this year he had an operation to clean out an area at the side of the ankle. From a distance it is easy to wonder if one operation, botched, did not necessitate another but England's medical staff insist this is not the case. The bone spur was one thing; the other operations were separate attempts to counter wear and tear. But history suggests that, even if things go well from here, doctors will be patching and mending him for the rest of his career.
That is not to say that things cannot be done to ease the situation. Back in 2001 Flintoff transformed his bowling by straightening his left foot upon landing; before then it had been almost side-on and caused him severe back problems. Recently Allan Donald, England's fast-bowling coach for the summer, wanted him to get the foot straighter still to ease the strain on the ankle. Flintoff was initially reluctant but during the Twenty20, Peter Moores, the England coach, claimed that Flintoff had indeed slightly adjusted his foot position.
What might also help, some have argued, would be if Flintoff took more time out to rehabilitate. His first two post-operative recovery periods lasted three months but after his most recent surgery he was back in action after two. Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, recently expressed surprise that Flintoff appeared to be rushed back into action so soon after his operations and suggested the England allrounder might be better off with a six-month break. Some of Flintoff's advisers are understood to think the same.
But Kirk Russell, the England physiotherapist, says: "We have always followed the schedule laid out by the doctors to the letter. Fred has never been rushed back. There were no symptoms when he returned for Lancashire, though obviously there were when he played in the one-dayers [v India]. We saw the World Twenty20 as the perfect opportunity to see how his ankle was. We were in regular contact with the surgeon and there is no way Fred would have played if there was a possibility of long-term damage being done. And Fred himself was keen to play, even in the dead-rubber match [against India]." David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, concurred: "I've asked him [Fred]. He said it was uncomfortable but he wanted to play."
Graveney conceded, however, that the idea of limiting the number of overs Flintoff bowls in a Test match - once floated as a possible solution - was unworkable. As far as England are concerned, Flintoff is either fit to bowl in a Test match or he is not.
Some maintain that he never will be again. Donald expressed doubts that, whether he changed his foot position or not, Flintoff might no longer be able to withstand the physical demands of Test cricket. Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian shortly before the Twenty20 tournament, proposed that Flintoff should retire from Test cricket and concentrate on the shorter forms of the international game.
There is no way that Flintoff, who has worked so many long and lonely hours on his rehab, would volunteer for such a course of action. But his hand may be forced. As Russell concedes: "His ankle will never be the same as it was."
Problem No. 2: the effect of fame
It is a moot point how Flintoff would have fared had he remained injury-free since 2005. On the face of it he ought to have done well but being an Ashes-winning hero changed his life. He became much wealthier and more in demand and the pressure on someone who says he prefers the quiet normality of family life to being a celebrity has taken its toll.
Expectations on England's 'Mr InFredible' became unrealistic and Flintoff himself seemed caught up in the mood. Rather than concentrate on maintaining his standards with bat and ball he increased his burden by courting the England captaincy. It might have been a position appropriate to his status as super-hero but this decision proved a disastrous error. Flintoff's advisers must take their share of the blame.
In his first home Test in charge Flintoff gave himself 68 overs - more than anyone in the team - in an unsuccessful attempt to force victory over Sri Lanka. Three weeks later he was paying the price, hobbling out of the Trent Bridge Test with the ligament damage that would necessitate his second ankle operation. Even so, when he came back, he still did so as captain, after the selectors opted not to upset their star player by passing him over for the leadership in Australia.
As a much-hyped series turned into an embarrassing rout, and Flintoff's form deserted him, so he apparently began turning to drink for comfort. He received several warnings from the management about this, once for turning up to a practice session unfit for work, but it was not until after a big night out following the World Cup defeat by New Zealand in St Lucia that disciplinary action was taken. Flintoff was dropped for the Canada match and stripped off the vice-captaincy. Michael Vaughan subsequently blamed the 'Fredalo' incident for undermining England's campaign.
Since then public sympathy for Flintoff has been on the wane and may fall further if Duncan Fletcher's eagerly awaited autobiography, due for publication in November, accuses Flintoff in explicit terms of unprofessional conduct in Australia.
Flintoff is a proud man who does not like being criticised or unpopular. If he is to recover his form, he probably first needs to recover his self-esteem, and that may not happen unless he stays out of further trouble.
Problem No. 3: batting
The area of Flintoff's game that has suffered most in the past 18 months is his batting. Initially the captaincy seemed to bring a new maturity, as he scored four half-centuries in his first series in charge, against India, but he did little in the three Tests that followed against Sri Lanka and in Australia his confidence visibly drained away as the hosts, predictably, revised their tactics and gave him little to hit. He later said he had got too wrapped up in his technique.
Technique has never been the strong point of his batting. Although he scored a lot of runs in 2004 and 2005, Flintoff has never really had the game of a pukka Test No. 6, more that of a hard-hitting No. 7. For his batting to come off he must trust his instinct and believe in his talent. When his confidence is low, as it was in Australia and the Caribbean, it rarely functions well. It must count against him that, despite the best effort of coaches, he has not introduced much subtlety to his batting. Not for nothing does one former international coach refer to him as "Blind Freddie".
By the end of the World Cup he was close to despair, toying with giving up the game altogether. Although he pulled himself out of that trough, his self-esteem remains low and, for a confidence player, that goes to the heart of his batting problems.
The repeated lay-offs have not helped. Simple rustiness is part of the problem. This at least holds out the hope that, if he can get back to playing regular cricket, the runs may start to come again. But Flintoff's recent pronouncement that he sees himself as a batsman who bowls is absurd. He has said things like this before when he fears for his future as a bowler. No one really believes he is good enough to command a Test place as a specialist batsman and he is not going to change anyone's mind until he starts scoring centuries again. His last one in any form of the game came in the Trent Bridge Test of 2005.
Flintoff unquestionably wants to keep playing. He has always been desperate to get on the field, and has never been anything less than a wholehearted competitor. He has just signed a 12-month contract committing him to play every form of the game for England until September 2008. Even though he has earned several million pounds in the past two years, he can probably not afford to retire just yet.
England need him, too. Provided he is fit, he remains the best allrounder in the country. "There's no doubt he balances the team," Graveney says. "Whenever he's not there, we have to decide whether we weaken the batting or bowling. Putting together a four-man attack is a bit easier in English conditions than it will be in Sri Lanka."
Those closest to Flintoff are adamant that he will eventually be fit enough to bowl again in Tests. "This is not an exact science," Moores says. "They [the doctors] are trying to find the solution to an ankle that has had hard wear over seven or eight years. Fred is disappointed and frustrated but he can see light at the end of the tunnel." Dave Roberts, the former England physio who has supervised Flintoff's long bouts of rehab, says that after three lay-offs in 30 months Flintoff had "turned himself around in overall fitness" and that both of them remain hopeful. "There were people who wrote off Michael Vaughan and were proved wrong," he says. Graveney adds: "For any side to lose a world-class player is a huge blow but maybe I'm the ultimate optimist. I don't think we've reached that point yet." In a recent TV interview with Piers Morgan, Flintoff spoke about his hopes of helping to regain the Ashes in 2009.
Perhaps this is now the best-case scenario. Flintoff takes time out this winter to get his ankle properly sorted before building up his form for the re-match with Australia, whom he destroys with short, incisive spells with the ball and lengthier assaults with the bat. He then retires from Test cricket, aged 31, but continues to play one-day cricket until 2011, when he helps England win the World Cup. He then retires to spend time at home with his young family and in the commentary box alongside Botham as a fellow knight.
But, if he is going to perform well at the highest level again, Flintoff has first to believe again in himself and his body. At the moment it is not clear that he does.
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times