Welcome back, Freddie

Andrew Flintoff has given us infinite amounts of pleasure and if a few games of cricket at any level will make him more cheerful then it ought to make us happier too, writes Ted Corbett.

There is a lesson for the whole of the sports world in the return to action of Andrew Flintoff five years after he retired.

It is, quite simply, that if you give your injuries a little time you might just find that they respond on their own and that — with a little aid from a doctor, a surgeon and a physio — you can spring back to life stronger than ever.

Of course if you suggest to a sportsman, a coach or a dedicated fan that all an injury needs is time they will laugh until they cry. “Time, we haven’t got time,” they will shout. “Look, a sportsman’s life is short — 20 years at best. He wants to be back in action as soon as possible.

“In addition there is probably an important match next week and his club will want him to play. On top of that, either buying a sporting star or developing one of your own is an expensive business and the owner, or the board of directors will want their money’s worth. Time — don’t make me laugh!”

Flintoff might have been an even greater all-round cricketer if he had had time to recover from those many injuries that made his career with Lancashire and England so pitted with enforced absence. Remember that as a young player he was on several occasions a good slice above 17st, which, even though he was 6ft 4in and broad both in the beam and the chest, was a lot of weight. At one time he weighed as much as Lennox Lewis at 17st 5lb. Lewis could afford that weight as he fought his way to the world heavyweight crown: but Flintoff?

He could not carry it all when he had to run 20 yards six times an over — in spells of five overs or more at a time often in hot sunshine — and not surprisingly he broke down.

As he grew older and wiser Flintoff — better known as Freddie after the stone age cartoon character, although he hated the association and once got quite cross with his wife when she referred to him as Freddie — slimmed down.

That was too late but he kept right on playing — and, let’s not deny it, we loved watching him and encouraged him to continue whatever his injuries because he was, like Ian Botham, a player who won his way into the hearts of fans, other players and those of us who wrote about the game.

Botham was our hero because of his feats on the field, his walks for charity and his charisma; Flintoff was as skilful but he was also very obviously an all-round happy-go-lucky guy who never changed, never let success go to his head and never passed by an old friend.

I feel warm-hearted towards this towering Lancashire lad because I was present when his name first came into the public domain.

England were having a tough time and the coach, David Lloyd, another Lancashire lad with an accent you could detect a mile off, was being grilled about the reasons for the failures. He was a joker but that day he was an unhappy bunny.

“What I want to know,” one of the journalists asked Lloyd, “is why we haven’t got a young player with a bright future.”

Lloyd’s face brightened. “I don’t know,” he replied, “if any of you have ever heard of a Lancashire boy called Freddie Flintoff?” That moment a star was born.

A few weeks later I was watching a Lancashire game come to an end when one of the opposition tail-enders skied a ball into the empty outfield. Flintoff, 40 yards away when the stroke was played, raced round the boundary and snatched the catch ankle high. It was a wonderful way to put a seal on Lancashire’s victory and I thought, “That lad has star quality.”

So it turned out. He was given a high rating by Bobby Simpson, the former Australian captain, then coaching Lancashire. He was promoted to the Test team and, despite a hesitant start, soon became a star player.

You could not afford to take your eyes off him for a second as he hit stumps, hit sixes and lifted the spirits of his team-mates in a way England fans had not witnessed for years. He also looked as if he enjoyed the successes and the failures.

By the time England won back the Ashes he was the man most likely to boost the odds on England simply by turning up. There were failures, of course, but the spirit of the man brought a smile to the dressing room and, as he showed at Lord’s during a victory over West Indies, he could take a wicket with a joke.

Tino Best arrived at the crease, last man in, clearly intent on winning the match with a single shot. “Now then, Tino,” shouted Flintoff from the slips. “Don’t you go breaking those windows. They cost a fortune.” The taunt forced Tino to play a big shot and his stumps to be spread-eagled.

I cannot tell you whether the Flintoff return will be a triumph or a disaster. I am just pleased the happy giant is fit and well and able to enjoy a spot of sport again. He has given us infinite amounts of pleasure and if a few games of cricket at any level will make him more cheerful then it ought to make us happier too.