A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a friend. Like most conversations currently, it was centred around the current Ashes series. I mused that it could well be the last Test series of Andrew Flintoff's career and optimistically speculated as to how special it would be if he could go out on the ultimate high. So I could hardly claim it to be the biggest shock of my life when I heard that Flintoff was to retire from Test cricket at the end of the Ashes, but that's not to say my stomach didn't jump upside down as though I was on a rollercoaster. When a colleague approached me and said, "have you seen the news about Freddie?!" I glumly assumed that he had been ruled out of the second Ashes Test, at Lord's. The real news, of course, was much more severe.
It seems so logical - well that's because it is
so logical. Freddie, as he is fondly known, has struggled with injuries for most of his career and every series he has played in the last three years has been accompanied by speculation as to how many Tests he will last before injuries force him onto the sidelines. Neil Young once wrote a famous lyric that Kurt Cobain immortalised in his suicide note, it said, "it's better to burn out, than to fade away." By calling time on a wonderful career now, Flintoff avoids fading away. He can go out with a bang. It may or may not be a glory-filled farewell, but he has never had his place in the side seriously questioned and will not be remembered for holding onto his place long after his time.
Flintoff's place in history will of course not be right up there with the absolute greats, not in anyone's all-time XI. He falls below Botham, Khan, Kallis and of course Sobers when great all-rounders are discussed. However Test cricket has been around for well over a century and Flintoff will be regarded as one of the best of the rest when all-rounders are discussed, it's hardly an achievement to be sniffed at.
Flintoff's status is built upon three amazing years between 2003 and 2006 where he had a genuine case to be considered the greatest cricketer in the world. He had been picked for Test cricket aged twenty, when he was neither ready nor good enough to be there. His progress took its time; it wasn't until New Zealand in 2002 that he first scored a Test century. Of course, back in those early days, Flintoff was considered to be a batting all-rounder, or indeed some didn't consider him an all-rounder at all. It is funny how things change; Flintoff himself still wanted to be a batting all-rounder until the very end, but he will be remembered for his bowling more than he will his batting.
There are so many matches and so many moments to go through that it would do a disservice to the ones that would be inevitably excluded if I was to dissect them piece by piece here. Flintoff's Test career will be analysed in great detail throughout the media in the coming months; it is hard to see too many different conclusions being reached. He should be considered to be a player who could have been better had he not been plagued by injuries, but in spite of it all still had a purple patch to match all bar the very best. His reign of supremacy started with a wonderful series with the bat at home to South Africa in 2003. He confirmed himself as a world-class fast bowler in gruelling conditions in Sri Lanka later that year; from there England went to the Caribbean and won for the first time in four decades and Flintoff was pivotal in this victory. His statistics often haven't told you the story of his contribution, but in that series he averaged 50 with the bat, and 27 with the ball, truly fantastic all-round figures.
From that series onwards, England swept all before them for close to two years, beating New Zealand and West Indies at home, South Africa away, and then Bangladesh at home. Through these fourteen matches (of which England won eleven), Flintoff enjoyed tremendous success, and he was backed by his statistics; he averaged 46.11 with the bat, and took 56 wickets at 23.21 apiece. After that, of course, came his magnus opus
. The Aussies came to town, and they and everyone else who watched that series would never forget what they witnessed. Flintoff destroyed Australia with bat and ball, he took the game to them match after match like nobody else had done in recent memory. It is a series which is still being celebrated to this day, it is a series which made young boys want to pick up cricket bats and bowl cricket balls. There were so many fantastic performances in that series, but it will always be remembered as Flintoff's Ashes. The series is perhaps best summed up by the front of an Australian newspaper after a day of Flintoff brilliance during the fourth Test at Trent Bridge. It said, "SOMEBODY STOP HIM", there was a picture of Flintoff underneath, and then it said, "Or we can kiss these goodbye..." and there sat a picture of the Ashes urn.
English cricket fans (and, indeed, cricketers) had spent years being tormented by Shane Warne, and finally, here was somebody who let our antipodean cousins know what it felt like. Sure, it was only one series versus Warne's many, but the sheer exasperation that they felt that summer when confronted with genuine brilliance confounded them. They weren't expecting it, and they will never forget it.
It is a monumental myth that all Flintoff achieved in his career was that Ashes series, and that he has never performed since. He bowled wonderfully and tirelessly as the rest of England's attack went missing in the disappointing defeat in Pakistan, and then went on to have a series almost as important and brilliant as his Ashes glory. He went to India, wound up captaining the team, and led them to their first Test victory on Indian soil since 1984. Flintoff batted five times in that series, scored 41 the first time and then passed fifty in each of the rest of his innings. He also took 11 wickets at just over 30 and there was no other candidate for man of the series. He got a telling and emotional embrace from Duncan Fletcher at the end of the match; it was a victory which may not have got the hype or the coverage of the Ashes triumph, but it was a tremendous accomplishment by a team that was severely depleted, a team led by a third-choice skipper who was thrust into the role very late in the day.
Flintoff led the team well in India but it was somewhat unfortunate that he continued to captain the side throughout the rest of 2006, barring the series against Pakistan which he missed through injury. Much like Ian Botham before him, the captaincy was an unnecessary burden to Flintoff, and although he had aspired to it, you have to imagine that if he went back in time he would probably not take the armband again. The whitewash that England suffered down under will go down as one of the worst cricketing memories that England fans have of Flintoff's time, and although he didn't disgrace himself with the ball, he struggled with the bat, and the series would have serious effects on his morale. In all reality though, the real nadir of his captaincy was surely when he bowled himself into the ground in vein pursuit of victory at Lord's against Sri Lanka; nobody knows for sure what the genuine long-term effect that match had on, but it really can't have helped.
Since the Ashes in Australia, his appearances have been sporadic, and the lifelong memories provided much less frequent. If I was to pick one Flintoff performance I would like to watch over and over again, though, it would come from the summer of 2008. I returned home from work on a Thursday afternoon and England had been behind the 8-ball at home to South Africa. Already one down in the series, South Africa approached England's first innings score with just four wickets down. Andrew Flintoff ran in and delivered one of the greatest spells of his career; he had a duel with Jacques Kallis that was scintillating. Flintoff was sending the ball in full, and Kallis fought desperately to keep it out. You could tell Kallis's time at the crease was not going to last too much longer, and indeed it didn't as Flintoff dismissed him with pace and outswing, uprooting the offstump of one of his own heroes. He had already accounted for the South African openers, and would shortly afterwards dismiss AB De Villiers, it truly was a fantastic bowling performance, but he would finish with figures of 4-89. For me, this sums up Flintoff's career; in a sport in which many fans like to judge players based purely on their statistics, Flintoff is seen by some as an overrated beneficiary of an English hype machine. Yet anybody who watched that spell, and so many others where he ended up with one, two, three, four wickets could tell you that it is about so much more than statistics with Flintoff. Cricket is a sport not a simulation, and to watch Flintoff bowl at full-pelt is a treat like no other. The impact this has at the other end should not be underestimated either, and the fact that he spent the best years of his career bowling as part of a successful pace attack also plays a large role when considering the lack of large hauls amongst his numbers.
Flintoff the cricketer will not go down as an all-time great, but he will be remembered more than many who may have been better than him. In England, amongst non-cricketing fans he is regarded as that guy who got drunk after we beat the Aussies, or that guy who, y'know, went on the pedalo. To his fans, he is a flawed genius, just like all of the best entertainers. The people in the seats at the cricket love Freddie because they feel he is just like them. He likes a game, he likes a laugh, and of course he likes a beer. He loves his wife and his kids, and he has never really embraced the celebrity culture like some of his team-mates have, like his footballing equivalents have. The truth, of course, is probably that he isn't really much like them at all, but it doesn't matter, he is the hero, he is the normal man blessed with extraordinary talent but with the same weaknesses as us all.
To me personally, I fear the emotional rollercoaster I am going to go through in the next six weeks. Sure, he will continue to play one-day cricket, but I already feel wholly empty when I realise that I won't be watching the big man run in in the whites once the summer is over. It is felt by some that to continue to have idols when you reach your mid-twenties is something that a man ought to grow out of. Nonsense. Flintoff's brilliance on the field brought me more happiness than any other sportsman has managed in my adult life and there is nothing quite like sport to put a smile on your face regardless of whatever else is going on. When his retirement was announced, suffering from conjunctivitis my eyes were red and raw. I have become so renowned for my admiration of Flintoff that a few people asked me if my eyes had reached that state because of the devastation caused by Flintoff's news. The truth is that Flintoff did bring out some strange behaviour in me over the years. In December 2005 I had a weekend away with my then girlfriend, and I insisted on the Sunday night that we take the bottle of wine we had bought to our hotel room because I had to see him crowned as the sports personality of the year, the first cricketer since Ian Botham to do so. When you admire a sportsman like I admire Flintoff, it really is pleasurable to see them achieve greatness, but is even more satisfying to see their achievements recognised by the rest of your country.
Ultimately, there will be many who will say that Flintoff could and should have achieved more with his career. He was advised to change his action at the age of 24, and again two years ago, but stubbornly continued to bowl the way that he did, which would put undue pressure on his ankles due to the way he landed. He also seemed to feel like he couldn't bat naturally from 2006 onwards, and his batting form regressed rapidly. It is easy to be critical, and say what might have been and what more could have come from Flintoff. In the end, though, how many other cricketers can boast what Flintoff can? He had an injury-plagued career but at his peak, in the 2003-06 period discussed earlier, he was regarded by many as the world's greatest all-rounder, and indeed the world's greatest cricketer. He was one of very few men to give the truly great Australian team that contained Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, and others, a hammering. He did what none of his contemporaries have managed, led England to a Test victory in India. He is looked upon fondly in pretty much all cricketing countries. All things considered, Flintoff has had a great career, a career to be proud of. Michael Atherton put it best, "I suspect he'll feel absolutely fulfilled."