The ordinary man breaks out

IN the course of a superb feature for the Guardian in 2005, Simon Hattenstone came up with this description of Freddie “Andrew” Flintoff: “There seems to be an ordinary man trying to break out of the superman carapace and retire to a quiet corner of the pub.”

It can’t be much fun being a super hero. Oh sure, everyone loves you when you save the world, but the levels of expectation are bound to start weighing you down after a while. And once you’ve hit your peak, people start talking about how you’ve lost your spark. (“Ooh, I tell you, I don’t think he’s as fast as a speeding bullet any more. And he had a real job leaping over that tall building in a single bound the other day as well.”)

Trying to be superhuman takes its toll. And Flintoff’s body seems to have spent a large part of the last four years telling him what he already knew – that he isn’t superhuman. His decision to retire from Test cricket at the end of this Ashes series, aged 31, is borne of a frustration at spending so much time trying to recover from injuries. It’s telling, I think, that he talked of saving his sanity when telling of his reasons for quitting. His bid to regain his super powers was, it seems, threatening to drive him potty.

He’s a fascinating character is Flintoff. It’s easy to get drawn into seeing him purely as the ‘Freddie’ caricature: a big-hitting, big-drinking, larger-than-life cricketer who fell off a pedalo; a man who fell asleep after a drunken binge to celebrate England’s 2005 Ashes win and woke up to find that Steve Harmison had written ‘Twat’ on his forehead.

But there’s also Andrew: the shy, unassuming Lancashire lad who played chess for his county as a schoolboy, who has nine GCSEs (and would probably have gone on to get A-levels and a degree had cricket not intervened), and whose first thought after England’s dramatic second Test win over Australia at Edgbaston in 2005 was to seek out the stricken Brett Lee.

He takes genuine pride in the fact that he was awarded the freedom of his home city of Preston after the 2005 Ashes, joking in an interview: “It means I can drive a flock of sheep through the town centre, drink for free in no less than 64 pubs and get a lift home with the police when I become inebriated. What more could you want?” (At least, I think he was joking.)

No one would pretend that Flintoff is a saint. His failure to turn up for an England team trip to the trenches near Ypres just before this Ashes series got under way did him no favours at all.

That incident, though, hinted at another contradiction in Flintoff’s personality, which was highlighted in that Hattenstone article in 2005. “He has a capacity for extreme discipline and extreme indiscipline,” Hattenstone wrote. And Flintoff seems to have spent a good deal of his career veering between one and the other – from his early-career battles with his weight to his international heroics to his post-2005 disciplinary blips.

When he was good, though, he was very good. And given the struggles he faced in his early career, when he looked as if he might not make it as an England regular, he can be proud that he managed to get to a point – as he did in 2004 – where Michael Vaughan was describing him as the greatest cricketer in the world. (Of course, Flintoff was far too modest to agree.)

Perhaps, in the end, the demands of staying at the very top demanded too much of him, both physically and psychologically. Being a Test cricketer might seem glamorous – who wouldn’t fancy a Christmas in Australia or the Caribbean? – but it doesn’t do an awful lot for your family life. Flintoff, remember, chose to stay out in India captaining his country in 2006, and missed the birth of his second child, Corey, as a result. He has hinted that it was a decision he has come to regret.

He did seem to be looking forward to this Ashes Test – indeed, he said as much in another in-depth interview with the Guardian published just nine days ago. And although he was by no means the star turn at the first Test in Cardiff, he certainly gave his all. Unfortunately, giving his all took its toll on his body again, and there is no guarantee he will feature in all four of the remaining Tests in the series.

But he will play some part, and he’ll get one last crack at Ashes glory. If he takes it, that will be a great way to bow out of Test cricket. If not, he’ll always have 2005 to reminisce fondly about as he sits happily, quietly, in the corner of the pub. I don’t think anyone would begrudge him that.

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