Paul Edwards pays his own tribute to Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff following his retirement from cricket
August 23rd 2009. The 5th Ashes Test at the Oval. Needing 545 to win, Australia have reached 217 for two on the fourth afternoon. No one really believes that England will not win the game, but Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are batting well and doubts are beginning to creep in. Suddenly, Hussey taps the ball to mid-on and calls Ponting for a sharp single. Too sharp, as it turns out. Mid-on throws down the wicket with Ponting still short of his ground and the fielder stands with his arms aloft in triumphant salute, for he is a proud Englishman and he knows that he has changed the game. In the capacity crowd, middle-aged spectators hug each other and sing in full-throated praise of their hero, a giant of a man, who performs deeds of valour.
Andrew Flintoff's career was filled with such moments. If we accept the prevailing view that he was not a great cricketer, let us still insist that he was capable of great feats which transformed games of cricket. His bowling on the Saturday evening in the 2005 Edgbaston Test, his century at Trent Bridge in the same series and his unforgettable spell on the Monday morning at Lord's in 2009 were all wonderful examples of how he could take the settled order of things and wrench them into a shape of his own choosing.
And now we know that we have seen the last of such wonders. On the final day of the 2010 season, already an occasion of sufficient melancholy, one might think, Flintoff announced that he was retiring from all cricket on medical advice. There will be no more siege-gun sixes, no more throat-threatening bursts of truly fast bowling, no more slip catches where the quickness of those huge mitts defied the spectator's eye.
But if Andrew Flintoff's performances on the field sometimes seemed to be the work of a superman - hence the persistence of the comic-book hero tag of Fred perhaps - the person performing those deeds was all too human and the spectators watching him play knew that they were applauding one of their own. On the morning after England Ashes won in 2009, the all-rounder spoke to the press at the team hotel. He was funny and honest, self-deprecating and kind. "I know I'm not a great cricketer," he said. "I'd much rather be remembered as a decent bloke."
It's that common touch as well as his prodigious ability which made Flintoff so popular with cricket fans across the world, and also with folk who wouldn't know a sightscreen from a thigh pad. Children loved him because, to an extent, he remained endearingly childlike himself. When they pestered their dads or mates to play cricket with them, boys would convince themselves that they were Freddie, not because they could emulate his deeds, but because they felt he understood their dreams. This is not surprising: he never forgot that back in Ribbleton, they were once his dreams too.
Dads loved him, for he came across as the sort of bloke who would stand his round in a pub or be the one playing the joke on his mates in the WKD adverts. "When I walk out on that field, it's like being someone else for a day," he said on the morning after the Ashes before. "I think one of the reasons why the crowd identify with me is that they know that if I wasn't out there playing, I'd be in the thick of the Barmy Army with a pint in my hand and singing away with the rest of them."
Already, Andrew Flintoff's deeds on the cricket field belong on video-tape or, more significantly, in the storehouse of individual memory. He will be recalled as one of the most important sportsmen of his day and as a warrior-cricketer who was always to be found where the battle was fiercest. "When an old cricketer leaves the crease, well you never know whether he's gone," sings Roy Harper, as he meditates on the power of recollection. There will be no more great days in the career of Andrew Flintoff, the professional sportsmen, but everyone who has witnessed him in his glorious pomp will wish him fulfillment in his future life. He is a decent bloke and he was, damn the critics, a great cricketer. Those of us who saw him play are rich indeed.
Photo: John Dawson
(c) Lancashire County Cricket Club Ltd