Fast forward to Flintoff's home ground at Manchester last month and the evening after the final day's play of the third Test against Australia. Beers were being sunk in both dressing rooms after another thrilling act in English cricket's five-part summer drama, but Flintoff was nowhere to be seen. The local hero was also enjoying a drink, but he had chosen to share it with Peter Marron, the Old Trafford groundsman, and his staff, sitting among the lawn mowers and grass boxes in the peace and quiet of their hut.
"He's never changed since he came on the staff here," Marron said this week. "He's the same lad now as when he first came. There's no show about him. He's got time for everybody."
During a summer in which the joys of cricket have been rediscovered by large sections of the British public, 27-year-old Flintoff has embodied many of the old game's finest virtues. While the cognoscenti have purred over his command of reverse swing, the power of his cover drives and the reliability of his slip catching, it is his down-to-earth nature, wholehearted competitiveness and old-fashioned good sportsmanship that have made "Fred" (he was 15 when one of his Lancashire colleagues first likened him to the central character in The Flintstones) a near certainty to scoop this winter's Sports Personality of the Year award. In Flintoff, the sporting public sees one of their own. He left school at 16, worked behind the record counter at Woolworth's in Preston and grew up with a taste for beer, curries and kebabs.
His performances have been a key factor as England have taken a 2-1 lead in the Test series and now need only a draw in next week's final encounter to win back the Ashes, the tiny trophy which has inspired one of sport's greatest rivalries, for the first time in 16 years.
Neither his batting nor his bowling action are perfect, but he has developed a style that works for his imposing 6ft 5in frame. As a bowler, he has added reverse swing to his armoury and become England's most reliable performer with the ball.
His explosive batting has always made him one of the great crowd-pleasers, though eyebrows were raised when he was dismissed for nought and three as England slumped to defeat in the first Test. He responded by scoring 141 runs and taking seven wickets as England came out with guns blazing to win the second Test and then built on those performances in the next two matches. His century in the last Test was a model of controlled aggression, his bowling a constant threat to Australian ambition.
"Andrew Flintoff is a big factor in how we've turned it around," his England colleague Ashley Giles said. "He's currently the best cricketer in the world. He leads from the front and takes everyone with him."
There is no fiercer competitor, yet in the heat of battle Flintoff has retained respect for his opponents. One of the most memorable images of the summer was at the end of the Edgbaston Test, in which Flintoff and Brett Lee had fought a toe-to-toe battle, each man fending off the 90mph deliveries they hurled at one another. Flintoff's first instinct was not to join in the wild celebrations but to put a consoling arm around his adversary, a fighter he recognises as a kindred spirit.
His career has been plagued by injuries, and in the past Flintoff's fitness problems may not have been helped by his formidable capacity for drink. Indeed, when interviewed earlier this year, Flintoff estimated he still consumed about 24 units of alcohol a week and said his favourite "snack" was "fish fingers, beans, chips and bread". Indeed, it was reported that at his wedding reception earlier this year the groom dined on fish fingers.
Marriage to Rachael, whom he met three years ago, and the arrival last year of their daughter, Holly, have changed the lifestyle of a popular figure who has always enjoyed socialising. His family have been travelling everywhere with him, though they will not go on England's tour of Pakistan this winter; Flintoff admits he is not looking forward to eight weeks away from them.
His tastes today are hardly those of a rabble-rouser. He swapped his Jaguar S-type for a more staid Volkswagen Touareg and has taken up fly-fishing. He listens to Radio 2 and likes Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, U2 and Rod Stewart. He dislikes the intrusiveness of mobile phones; his is often switched off and he refuses to take it on holiday.
After the third Test, the Flintoffs enjoyed a break on the French Riviera with friends. He liked being in France because "they're not bothered about the Ashes". Uncomfortable with fame (whenever his wife tries to put cricket memorabilia up around their house, Flintoff takes it down), he could not help noticing on an evening out upon his return that "almost everybody recognised me - not just blokes, but women and teenage kids, too".
Paul Beck, one of the friends who joined him in St Tropez, said: "He's not flash. In France, we'd go out for lunch, spend four or five hours on the beach, swim and spend the evening chatting over a bottle of rosé. He's one of the most laid-back individuals I've met in my life. He's a very normal, rounded human being."
Yet any impression of a carefree sportsman who performs without nerves would be misleading. Flintoff put his poor display at Lord's down to self-inflicted pressure and was nearly sick in the dressing room at Trent Bridge last Sunday after losing his wicket.
In the England team, Flintoff's closest friends have been men like Steve Harmison, Robert Key and Matthew Hoggard, who would all prefer a pint in the pub to cocktails in a swish bar, and he has retained a strong circle of friends from his childhood days in Preston (he now lives near Knutsford in Cheshire).
He was always mad on sport. He supports Preston North End (with a soft spot for Liverpool) and played football for Preston schoolboys. He also played rugby and table tennis - not to mention chess for Lancashire schools - but from an early age cricket was his game. His earliest sporting memory was watching his father, Colin, a plumber, play cricket at the Dutton Forshaw club in Preston. His older brother, Chris, also plays and his mother, Sue, is a keen follower of the game.
From the age of nine, when he scored a century for Lancashire's under-11 team, he played representative cricket at age-group levels. He played for England Under-14s and England Schools and went on England Under-19 tours to West Indies, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, the latter as captain. He made his debuts for Lancashire and the England senior team at 17 and 20 respectively.
"From his early schoolboy days, he was very special," said David Lloyd, who took him on at Lancashire and was his first England coach. "He was quite big for his age. He could bowl quickly and had great power and strength, but above all he had great presence. In his early days with Lancashire, he was teetotal, though he obviously grew to enjoy a drink.
"He was always very competitive and would never shy away from a situation with senior players. On the England Under-19 tour of Zimbabwe, we played their 'A' team, who were all senior players. Craig Evans, who's as big as Flintoff, was one of the Zimbabwe team and when it was his turn to bat he didn't come on to the field from the pavilion as he should have done. He was sitting with his pals, smoking a cigarette.
"When he came out to bat, Andrew went over to him and said: 'Are we not good enough for you to play against or what?' Craig was pretty taken aback."
Flintoff has suffered with back problems from early in his career. At 22, unable to bowl, he put on weight and was pilloried in sections of the media for his lifestyle. Even the England management hinted they were concerned about his weight; when Flintoff won a man-of-the-match award, he described it as "all right for a fat lad". The criticism affected his cricket and he even declined to wear a back support for fear it would make him look bigger. In 2000, there were even fears he might never bowl again, but an operation helped to relieve the pain.
A poor season followed in 2001, leading to a showdown in the Old Trafford dressing room when his management team of Neil Fairbrother, a Lancashire colleague who has since become his business manager and batting coach, and Chubby Chandler told him he would never realise his potential until he adopted a more professional attitude.
Flintoff worked at his game and fitness, and the years of promise were finally fulfilled in 2003, when he was England's best player at the World Cup and hit a pulsating 142 in a defeat at Lord's and a superb 95 in victory at the Oval against South Africa.
The following summer he smashed 167 against the West Indies at Edgbaston, but the more significant improvement was in his bowling. Stronger and fitter, he took wickets regularly and was acclaimed as world one-day player of the year and as one of the planet's five cricketers of the year by Wisden, the game's bible.
Flintoff has been in big demand this summer, but he is carefully shielded by Fairbrother, who handles everything from endorsement deals to replacing the mobile phones he regularly loses (one floated down the Danube during his stag weekend in Budapest earlier this year).
Flintoff should earn more than £1m this year and his earnings are likely to soar as he basks in the fame of England's most celebrated cricketer since Ian Botham.
The comparisons with England's best player of the last 50 years, an all-rounder with a similar up-and-at-'em approach, are inevitable. Flintoff plays down the comparisons, stressing that they are different players and personalities and that he has some way to go before his statistics can be compared with the man who similarly dominated the Ashes summer of 1981.
Like Botham, however, he has become an instantly recognisable figure. When the Melbourne Herald Sun reported on Australia's latest mauling by Flintoff, they did not even have to use his name in their despairing headline "Somebody stop him".
A Life in Brief
BORN 1977, Preston, Lancashire
FAMILY Married to Rachael, one daughter Holly
EDUCATION Ribbleton Hall High School, Preston
CAREER 1993, England Schools Under-15s; 1994-1998, England Under-19s; 1995, debut for Lancashire; 1998, Test debut against South Africa. Awards include the Professional Cricket Association Player of the Year 1998; ICC One-Day Cricket Player of the Year 2004
HE SAYS "I'm enjoying bowling, but I'm a proud man. I still reckon I'm a batting all-rounder, rather than the other way round. I'm never going to change that."
THEY SAY "I was at dinner with him and I just liked him. He's got something. He has good eyes." Sir Alex FergusonReuse content