Lovable cricketer

Everyone knew this was the end of a great career although just how great Andrew Flintoff was, remains a matter for debate, writes Ted Corbett.

We all loved Freddie.

Been-there-done-that cynical reporters who enjoyed his company, twin-set mums who wanted to give him a cuddle and tell him everything would be all right, kids who wanted to grow up like him, M'Lord in the pavilion alongside the former cricketers turned MCC, ECB and ICC officials who knew how many spectators he brought in and how valuable his presence was to the game, grand-dads in cardigans with their memories of Ian Botham, Richie Benaud, Keith Miller and all the other great all-rounders, MPs and the spooks of MI5 and MI6 and the old 'uns from the Bradford League at Headingley, the lads with dreams of a Test future like his from the Lancashire League at Old Trafford and even the bearded young men in ladies' make-up and dresses.

Yes, everyone loved Freddie Flintoff, from the moment 15 years ago when David Lloyd, the England coach inquired, “Has anyone here heard the name Andrew Flintoff?” A few days ago Freddie declared his own innings closed through injury and the love affair came to a close.

No one urged him to go on. We knew this was the end of a great career although just how great Flintoff was, remains a matter for debate.

I will have none of this discussion. As the computer folk have it, ‘What You See Is What You Get' with Flintoff.

We who sit in the sidelines have no right to demand he play in any way yet throughout his career Flintoff was criticised for not being consistent, of reaching fifty and not going on to 100, of getting out when it seemed easier to stay, of throwing away brilliants starts with careless shots that brought catches to cheer the opposition when a push for one was all that was needed.

But that was the man. He could hit the ball from Lord's to The Oval and sometimes he wanted to do just that to prove to all and sundry he was ‘The Flintoff'.

I hope no one ever criticised his bowling because that would simply be proof that they lacked a basic knowledge of the game.

Flintoff, bowling faster than any other England bowler of recent times, was a fearsome sight. He stood 6ft 4in at least and weighed a whole lot of different tonnages from 17st 10lb — the same as Lennox Lewis, the world heavyweight contender at the time — down to a fighting weight of around 15st 7lb.

That top weight was at least partly responsible for the series of operations that spoiled his cricket from the age of 25. If you want to know exactly what force he brought down on the bowling crease as he let fly his 95 miles an hour Exorcets ask a scientist.

I will tell you that if you are an average professional batsman and you see a 16st, 6ft 4in Goliath running in to send the ball down at as near to 100 miles an hour as makes no difference you will freeze just enough to ensure that one of his first half dozen deliveries gets through your guard.

He bowled a spell in 2006 in Melbourne that won a one-dayer against New Zealand which was among the finest I have ever seen.

I will even give you a comparison. Waqar Younis, now the Pakistan coach, produced four overs around the same quality against England at Headingley in 1992 when he seemed to have elastic in his arm as his unorthodox swing sent the ball hurtling towards the base of the middle stump.

Who can call it between these two; I have neither the skill nor the wish to make that distinction.

Flintoff's barrage came towards the end of the match, when the New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming was already beyond a century and the Kiwis had won the match but for a handful of runs.

They never made it to the finishing line because Flintoff would not allow it. He peppered Fleming and anyone else who happened to be standing at the stumps and by the time he had shrugged that massive sweater back over his dripping shirt England had won.

Flintoff's fielding was just as magnificent as his bowling and if you don't believe me, beg, borrow or steal a video of the late stages of the fifth Test at the Oval in 2009 and watch him throw out Ricky Ponting. I was telling you why people loved Freddie.

In part it was not only because he was big and jolly and full of humorous quips — “watch those windows, Tino,” he shouted to the tiny West Indies fast bowler at Lord's and saw the man's stumps scattered next ball — but it was also because he was not capable of a mean trick, never sought to win by anything but fair and honest cricket and, as they still say — for all the events of the last few weeks — played a straight bat to everything, on the field and off.

No need to fear this lovely man will tread the paths visited by Wayne Rooney and John Terry. He is a family man and was never happier than when he had his mother and father, and his brothers by his side.

He even captured the heart of Bob Simpson, that gnarled and ageing Australian coach, once their captain, and not a man to give praise to anyone, Aussie or Pom, unless it was deserved.

Simpson was the Lancashire coach when Flintoff joined the club and admits he stood wide-eyed as the big lad pounded the ball from one end of the ground to the other.

“This lad is going to be someone special,” he said. So it came to pass as the world grew to love Flintoff and Flintoff learned how to turn that power into the 2005 Ashes victory that caused Michael Vaughan the England captain to say “He made my reputation in that series.”

Honest man, Vaughan. Great, lovable cricketer, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff.

* * * FLINTOFF FACTFILE Name: Andrew Flintoff. D.O.B: December 6, 1977. Birthplace: Preston, England.

Test record: 78 Tests for England, one Test for ICC World XI.

Batting: Matches-79, Innings-130, Not outs-9, Runs-3,845, Highest score-167, Average-31.77, Hundreds-5, Fifties-26, Catches-52.

Bowling: Matches-79, Wickets-226, BBI-5/58, BBM-8/156, Average-32.78, 5WI-3.

One-Day International record

Batting: Matches-141, Innings-122, Not outs-16, Runs-3,394, Highest score-123, Average-32.01, Hundreds-3, Fifties-18, Catches-47.

Bowling: Matches-141, Wickets-169, BBI-5/19, Average-24.38, 5WI-2.

Career highlights 1995: Makes Lancashire debut.

1998: Makes Test debut against South Africa at Trent Bridge.

2002: Scores maiden Test century, 137 against New Zealand at Christchurch.

2004: Named as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year.

In July, scores 167 in second Test against West Indies at Edgbaston.

2005: Enjoys superb Ashes series, scoring 402 runs and taking 24 wickets.

2006: In March, captains England in the absence of the injured Michael Vaughan to 1-1 Test series draw in India.

Continues as captain for drawn home Test series against Sri Lanka but misses rest of season through injury.

In September named captain for Ashes tour of Australia where England is thrashed 5-0.

2007: Dropped from the England team to face Canada in St. Lucia, and stripped of the vice-captaincy, at the World Cup after staying out late drinking and riding a pedalo in the early hours.

Has fourth ankle operation.

2008: In July, returns to England Test side to face South Africa after more than a year out injured.

2009: Joins Indian Premier League (IPL) side Chennai Super Kings but returns to England for knee surgery.

In July returns to England side for opening Test draw against Australia in Cardiff. Aggravates the knee injury he sustained during the IPL and announces plans to retire from Test cricket after end of Ashes before the second Test at Lord's.

Takes five for 92 as England beats Australia in a Test at Lord's for the first time since 1934. Bows out of Tests at The Oval, running out Australia captain Ricky Ponting as England wins by 197 runs to regain the Ashes 2-1. Undergoes surgery on right knee.

2010: In August, his return from injury delayed as he misses Lancashire 2nd XI's one-day game against Yorkshire and then announces he will miss the rest of the English season.

On September 16, announces his retirement from all forms of the game.