Flintoff names Michael Vaughan's captaincy as his highlight

Andrew Flintoff had so many best moments to choose from: the Trent Bridge hundred against Australia in 2005; that earlier over at Edgbaston against Ricky Ponting; the five wickets at The Oval; probably not the escapades in St. Lucia. But he made a curious choice: "It was when Michael Vaughan took over as captain for the South Africa series and the years after that."

The erstwhile colossus of English cricket looked beyond his own achievements to the man who allowed him to flourish all too briefly from 2003-05. The parallel is not precise but Vaughan was to Flintoff what Mike Brearley was to Ian Botham. Neither Botham nor Flintoff was ever quite as invincible as it seemed. Their self-belief, particularly in Flintoff's case, was not quite as all-embracing as we thought. Botham could be nervous: why else would he prepare for every Test innings on the 1982-83 tour playing cribbage - as an escape mechanism - with the current national selector, Geoff Miller?

Brearley liked Botham the person, not just because he was a source of wickets or runs. He had a special affinity with the earthy men in his team such as Mike Hendrick, Derek Randall and Botham who, in turn, was intrigued by Brearley's mind. Brearley could goad Botham - as "the side-step queen" at Headingley - but England's champion all-rounder always knew that his captain was, in part, a devoted father-figure. Certainly he was no rival. The colossi rarely welcome those as captain.

Flintoff was far less keen on confrontation than Botham. He is a natural conciliator. His instincts are to put his arm around Brett Lee at Edgbaston in 2005 and to look to Ricky Ponting rather than the umpire when a catch is in doubt, as at Cardiff. He craved a captain who would deliver an arm around the shoulder rather than a fierce rebuke. And this is what he found when Vaughan took over from Nasser Hussain in the middle of the 2003 series against the South Africans.

Flintoff did not put it as bluntly as Matthew Hoggard when asked whom he preferred playing for, Vaughan or Hussain. "Vaughan," Hoggard said. Why? "He doesn't shout at me as much as Nasser." Flintoff never liked to be cajoled and badgered, which was Hussain's way. He wanted freedom to do his own thing, not pressure from a growling captain. Vaughan was wise enough to give him that and lucky enough that for two years Flintoff had a body that could cope and a free mind. This is not to say that Vaughan was not at times exasperated by his all-rounder. The England tour committee on several tours would spend hours debating how they could get Flintoff devoting more energy to their pre-match training.

By announcing his retirement Flintoff will, for certain, feel the love from what has nearly always been an adoring public. It will not be quite so straightforward with his fellow players. This series is about the Ashes, not Flintoff, and no sportsman can stage-manage his exit with trumpets blaring. It might have been simpler and wiser to delay announcing this decision until the end of the Oval Test.

Vic Marks/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009