Andrew Flintoff: a lad and a lionheart
If Andrew Flintoff's departure was less an announcement than a confirmation it hardly made his premature retirement from the game any less poignant.
The defective knee, the last of the injuries which dogged a dynamic career, left him no option but to go.
Specialists had finally broken the news to him on Wednesday night that the joint would no longer support his declared ambition to become the best one-day player in the world or indeed any kind of player any longer. Non-specialists had worked it out months ago.
It has become fashionable to suspect Flintoff's status as a premier all-round cricketer.
The statistics, it is blithely reported, do not testify to a player of enduring achievement.
Nor do they, although there are men who only bat or only bowl who would kill for batting averages of 31.78 in Tests and 32.72 in one-day internationals, and bowling averages of 32.02 and 24.38.
But Flintoff, like sportsmen are meant to do, went beyond mere figures.
He was a magnificent player because he could and did occasionally turn games, because he made opponents fear what he might do and because, perhaps above all, the way he played the game easily convinced crowds to love him.
And he was, as they say now, a heroic drinker.
It is natural to try to calculate where in the all rounders' pantheon he resides. Behind Ian Botham? Ahead of Trevor Bailey? Level with Tony Greig? Pretty darned high up.
His last captain, Andrew Strauss, whose side take on Pakistan in a one-day game today, could hardly have put it better yesterday.
“The impact he has had on English cricket has been immense,” he said.
“The biggest memories I will have of him are how incredibly able he was to make something happen out of nothing with both bat and ball. 2005 was his zenith, but he was always the ultimate impact cricketer, somebody who on so many occasions stepped up to the plate.
“He would put his body on the line on flat wickets when other bowlers were maybe starting to struggle. We are all striving to gain the respect of our peers. Andrew certainly did that.”
The image of Flintoff that will live forever was forged in the immediate aftermath of England's pulsating victory by two runs in the Second Test match at Edgbaston in the 2005 Ashes series.
Australia's last two wickets edged ever closer to what had been a distant target of 282 and then, suddenly, it was all over. The last man, Mike Kasprowicz, gloved Steve Harmison to the wicketkeeper, Geraint Jones, who took the catch diving forward in slow motion.
The world, or at least the English part of it, went crazy in that moment, an outpouring of exultation and relief. Not Flintoff, not our Freddie. He leaned down and commiserated with his heroic, vanquished foe Brett Lee, who had done everything in his power to take Australia to a 2-0 lead in the series.
Whatever Freddie said to Brett then hardly matters. The gesture encapsulated everything that is good, noble and important about professional sport. It was almost a validation.
Flintoff was 27 and at the height of his powers, though his body had already threatened several rebellions.
Flintoff knew that summer would be the most vital of his life. It was Australia and all that entailed, he was in his pomp. In the First Test at Lord's he failed the audition for greatness as England were hammered.
But Edgbaston made him. Five sixes came off a 64-ball thrash. His second innings 73 was cut from a different, more measured but still vibrant cloth (there were only four sixes). He bowled like the wind.
It was set up then and Flintoff's influence on that epic series never waned. That alone would have been enough to ensure that his name lived forever, and it almost had to do as injury piled upon injury.
But he made the next Ashes series in Australia. Named wrongly as captain, the tour was a disaster. He was a hopeless, floundering captain who lacked support and England lost 5-0.
Thankfully, there was one last hurrah.
In the 2009 Ashes, Flintoff was patently not fit enough to play. But England still needed him as the fulcrum of the side, the third seamer, the explosive batsman and, little did they know, the sharp-shooter fielder. Because he was Freddie, he made two breathtaking interventions.
On the eve of the Second Test at Lord's he announced his retirement from Test cricket. He produced an irresistible spell of bowling which ensured that England beat Australia at Lord's for the first time in 75 years. No man can have limped with such ferocity to figures of 5 for 92.
But Freddie had changed. Where once he had consoled his opponent he now stood in the middle of the pitch, his arms outstretched, pretending, except for the chewing of gum, to be emotionless, the Angel of the North come to life. Where once he had been spontaneous, this looked contrived.
All did not proceed smoothly thereafter. The knee was killing him, even if he would not concede as much. The unthinkable happened and he was dropped for the Fourth Test at Headingley, a move which backfired spectacularly as England lost.
There was nothing for it but to bring him back and so the selectors did for the clincher at The Oval. He did not fire with the bat as he had not done for some time and he was anodyne by his standards with the ball.
Then on the fourth afternoon, with Australia just beginning to appear as if they might actually threaten a target of 546 to win the match, Flintoff made his last indelible mark on a cricket match.
Mike Hussey, the Australian left-hander pushed a ball from Steve Harmison at mid on and set off for a single. Flintoff swooped for the ball and threw down the stumps at the striker's end to which Ponting was running, forlornly as it happened. In a trice the session, the day, the match and the Ashes belonged to England. Flintoff merely went down on one knee.
That was that as it has turned out. Several subsequent medical bulletins all pointed to one destination which was formally reached yesterday. Fred has been flawed as a cricketer and man.
He drank too much on occasions and his failure to make the team bus on the morning they were visiting First World war graves before the Ashes last year did not enamour him to team-mates. For Freddie it was, as so often, the morning after the night before.
But he was contrite, as naughty little boys often are and loved by the public more. What lies ahead of him who knows. He has a ready wit and will be as much as anything perhaps a professional celebrity. But he was a great cricketer.
Flintoff's famous five
THE ASHES 2005: Arguably his finest hour came in the second Test of the epic series when Flintoff took seven wickets and hit 73 runs in a two-run victory. He hit 102 in the Fourth Test as he was named man of the match with England clinching a first Ashes victory since 1987.
THE ASHES 2009: It turned out to be his last hurrah as England regained the Ashes after their mauling Down Under in 2007. The sight of Flintoff on his knees after dismissing Peter Siddle in the Second Test was the iconic image of the series and was one of five wickets he took as the Aussies were tumbled.
INDIA 2002: Not bad for a fat lad. Not for the first — or last time, Flintoff had been hammered in the press for his weight so his starring role in India in the drawn One-Day series saw him shed his shirt in Mumbai after a final over where he grabbed two wickets in successive balls to secure a 3-3 draw.
WORLD CUP 2007: Flintoff took an incredible one-handed slip catch to prematurely end Kiwi Ross Taylor’s innings for 0 and leave New Zealand 3 for 2. However, that tournament for Flintoff will always be most associated with the notorious ‘Fredalo’ incident.
THAT BRETT LEE MOMENT: Back to the 2005 Ashes series and after the nail-biting two-run win at Edgbaston, Flintoff, while all around him were celebrating, the England star took time out to console devastated Aussie batsmen Brett Lee.