Darling of the British sporting public

Just in the past month Andrew Flintoff has demonstrated that he knows how the game should be played: with gusto, with elan and with a grin. We will miss him, not just because he can win matches as he did at Lord’s recently but for the life force within that huge frame and his reminder that cricket is to be relished, writes Ted Corbett.

Andrew Flintoff — Freddie to all and sundry — is probably the friendliest great cricketer who ever lived. That is saying a lot when his greatest skill is bowling fast and frequently at someone’s head.

Glenn McGrath knocked your helmet over your eyes and gave you a curse to add to the shock. Michael Holding slid the ball past your nose and glowered: “Did you like the smell of that one?” Lesser lights signalled you back to the pavilion wi th a gesture that was meant to leave you downcast.

With Freddie no bouncer ever flashes across the pitch at 90-plus miles an hour, no short ball rises to hit you in the chest, no quicker ball ever raps your fingers but that you look up and see a grin spreading across his face.

He has all the fast bowling tricks and delights in giving an exhibition of his powers. The toe crushing yorker, the inswinger, the inducker that sears from the pitch towards off and middle, the rarer outswinger, the slower ball, the quicker ball — Sky machinery claims he has bowled 94 miles an hour even late in his spell — and he never, but absolutely never, thought of giving up.

“He never bowls a bad spell,” says Geoff Boycott and that is a compliment and a half. Boycott has never lost a tiny part of his thick Yorkshire accent; Flintoff is as Preston in Lancashire today as he was when one of his main preoccupations was a game of chess.

I bet he grinned when he claimed “Checkmate” and maybe when his pawn took yours.

As a batsman he — like Ian Botham with whom he is inevitably compared — has two games.

Flintoff always starts his innings with a vast, none-shall-pass exaggerated defensive shot, forward or back as if to say “I know you think of me as a brainless hitter but there is another classic side to my batting.”

When he hits it is not from impatience but because he knows he has the strength to carry it to the boundary. One of his best remembered shots came in a century at Lord’s when the ball soared towards a balcony on which stood his father. What a fairy story, we thought, as Flintoff senior, stretched out his hands, what a moment to remember.

Well, it was too, because dad dropped the catch and gave Freddie another opportunity to smile. “Dad and my brothers come home on a Saturday night full of stories about their marvellous moments in league matches — now we know the truth,” he grinned.

“Simple catch and he drops it, while his son is in the middle of a big innings at Lord’s. How shameful!”

All the while he was grinning ear to ear, thinking no doubt that in the weeks to come he would be able to go home and counter the first criticism of his own play with a casually delivered remark about people who drop catches at Lord’s, on television and off their own son too.

That grin, that nickname evolved from the exploits of Fred Flintstone the cartoon character, his 6ft 5in and 16st and his explosive batting and bowling explain why the British sporting public adore him.

Despite everything.

For Flintoff, who announced his retirement to get that ogre off his back before the second Ashes Test got underway, is not a perfect human being.

He drinks like a school of fish. He gets up to silly pranks like going for a midnight paddle in a pedalo in the Caribbean as if he might raise the Jolly Roger and pirate a few cargoes; he puts on weight when he ought to be dislodging it and his batting is not always the result of carefully controlled, professionally motivated art of, say, a Sachin Tendulkar or a Rahul Dravid.

Once at least he was not fully recovered from a night on the town when he appeared on TV; once when he was at practice. He was so out of control that morning that practice was abandoned and, you may remember, he was England captain at the time. Not for much longer.

But that is what we like. We loved Botham although he had clearly toyed with noxious substances, been banned, lost hold of the captaincy, given out the wrong messages, smiled at a passing lass.

Just as we loved Tony Greig, a rumbustious as well as an astute captain and Darren Gough, whose mouth sometimes outdid his deeds.

“Characters” in the 21st century jargon, lovable rogues in more traditional words, naughty boys to their parents no doubt.

There was a time, for instance, when Flintoff weighed in at 17st 12lb. Not ideal as the apologists for sportsmen are apt to remark at moments of stress and at one time that was his best known stat.

As his career developed we began to realise that there was more to Flintoff than a restless streak and in 2005 he achieved immortality by leading the England fight to win back the Ashes.

I cannot remember a performance of such power, so many interventions at the right moment, nor when one man uplifted the whole country simply by beginning his spell or his innings.

It was a mighty show this exhibition by Freddie Flintoff and the England heroes, even though Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan pulled the strings, Steve Harmison bowled like the wind and finally when all seemed lost Kevin Pietersen came to England’s rescue. As a result they snatched back the Ashes for the first time in an eternity.

Sadly, Flintoff, then the captain, showed too many of his weaknesses in 2006-7 and England handed the Ashes straight back. Chucked them back 5-0 might be nearer the truth, in part because Freddie did not apply himself, because he was just the wrong man to be part of a team led by Fletcher and because he had an attitude to cricket we have not seen in this country since 1940.

At that time we were fighting a different sort of enemy who sent teams of aircraft over daily to attempt to either force us to join the Nazi storm across Europe or to bomb us into submission.

We were saved by the men Winston Churchill called The Few; devil-may care pilots just out of school who took to the air and responded to each challenge with a zest that often cost them their lives.

That is how Flintoff wanted to play his cricket and it is how he now can because the responsibility of leadership has been lifted from his shoulders.

Instead he has turned into a different sort of leader. More by example than ultimatum, more by getting on his white charger and rushing at the enemy than sitting in a darkened room and planning their downfall.

He has not been England’s greatest batsman, bowler or fielder; and in the past few weeks since his announcement about retiring many have gone into print to talk about his lack of startling figures, his wayward behaviour and his selfish reasons for this sudden decision.

Just in the past month he has demonstrated that he knows how the game should be played: with gusto, with elan and with a grin.

We will miss him, not just because he can win matches as he did at Lord’s recently but for the life force within that huge frame and his reminder that cricket is to be relished.

Thanks for that, Freddie.