Andrew Flintoff: 'For cricket's sake, we must play fewer Tests'

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In the first major interview since he announced his retirement, the all-rounder talks to Stephen Brenkley about the rise of Twenty20, and how it will feel to see England play without him

The conquering hero left his helicopter yesterday and wandered over to the school cricket field. There, a bunch of rapturous children greeted him. "Freddie, Freddie, Freddie," they cried. Andrew Flintoff was on a whistle-stop tour of his own cricket academies – he went to Bristol and, via the chopper, to Bolton. And if they would have been star struck to see him in any event, his deeds at Lord's earlier this week took the elation up a notch or 10.

As usual, he was perfectly at home among his audience, for Freddie is truly a man of the people. They warm to him as to few cricketers. They love the bravura manner of his performances, born of courage and desire and the clear evidence that, despite the torture his body has been through these past few years, he is happy in his work.

They adore the fact he likes a pint.

But Flintoff had a warning for those who think that the Ashes are coming home this early in the piece. He said: "If we think we have done anything so far then we will get found out," he said. "We have won one Test match and that's all we've won. It's great and we enjoyed it but it's now about getting ready for next week and we have got to perform as we have or even better.

"The two sides are dramatically different in appearance from the last time we played in 2005 and I think they are close. That's what we might see over the next three matches, the series is obviously hotting up nicely."

Flintoff is in considerable discomfort – and often something worse – from the knee on which he had surgery only weeks ago. But he is desperate to play in the final three matches of the Ashes series and, after his extraordinary spell of hostile fast bowling, starting on Sunday and culminating on Monday morning at Lord's, it is clear that the Ashes now are also a Farewell to Freddie.

It is not what he wants particularly, although it is easy to see that he likes the roar of the crowd. On Monday after his first, crucial wicket of the day to end the worrying partnership between Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke, he stood without fuss in the middle of the pitch.

But by the end, when he completed his 5 for 92, he stood there, his arms spread wide like the Angel of the North come to life. In Bolton yesterday, where he entered thoroughly into the spirit of the coaching – and had a 30mph underarm hit for six by Sam Barnett – it was hard to tell who was the more rapt, the kids or their parents. That is the measure of true stardom.

Flintoff insists that his attention is solely on the matter in hand, treating the knee as carefully as possible, and that nothing else matters but the next three matches.

"There is no time for sentiment," he said. "I will worry about that when I finish at The Oval. Walking off for the last time at Lord's the other day was special. I sat in the dressing room and had a look around and felt pretty pleased with myself.

"It probably hasn't hit me yet, in a few weeks, maybe when the lads are playing in South Africa this winter, that's when it will hit me. But for now I just want to focus on playing at Edgbaston and performing."

Freddie is giving up Test cricket after the Ashes to play one-day internationals and Twenty20 cricket in the Indian Premier League and perhaps elsewhere. It is his body that has told him to go but it is obvious that Twenty20, in particular, poses a threat to the longest and purest form of the game. He was surprisingly pragmatic about this.

"The public will decide the future of Test cricket," he said. "If people turn out to watch Twenty20 and not Test cricket then it could happen. In England we need to maintain the appeal it has. We have seen in the past few years what it means to people and we have to preserve that for the good of the game and the tradition behind it because it is a great format. The one thing we need to do to continue to maintain Test cricket as being special is cutting down the amount and make it a real occasion rather than playing one after another."

The last point is pertinent but unfortunately it has fallen on deaf ears in the corridors of cricketing administrative power. Perhaps they may be more prepared to listen now that one of the game's pukka heroes has gone. If the endless litany of injuries was the overriding reason, there were other matters to take into account.

"The family is a consideration, one of the kids starts school this year and it is getting more and more a factor. But ultimately it has been my body."

There would be a deep irony if Flintoff's long-term presence in Twenty20 further erodes the appeal of Test cricket, which in 2005 he did so much to revitalise. "It was interesting coming here today and asking the kids what form of cricket they like best. They like the glitz and glamour of Twenty20 but maybe Twenty20 could have a knock-on effect so that players start with it and then work out how to play the longer form. So it could have a positive effect but it's going to have to be handled very delicately."

But Flintoff told his audience at a question and answer session – and he reinforced the point later – that nothing gives a cricketer a buzz like the Ashes. Nothing makes him more determined or proud and it is why he will drag his body to the starting line next Thursday. When he is done he will have more time to spend on his cricket academy, run by his Lancashire team-mate Luke Sutton, and the Andrew Flintoff Foundation, about both of which he is passionate.

And will he have any regrets? Taking on the captaincy in the last Ashes series, perhaps, which ended in a 5-0 whitewash for Australia and left Flintoff visibly scarred with pain that had nothing to do with his body.

"When you get offered the captaincy you've got to have a go," he said. "In India, where it went well, I was playing well and anything that needed doing I'd do it myself. When I wasn't playing well it was tough. I'm glad I had a go, maybe it saved [Andrew] Straussy. It might have been different. The right man has ended up with the job but maybe I took one for the team out in Australia and now Straussy can go about his business."

And maybe he did. Flintoff will be in the hearts of the nation in the next six weeks and sometimes those hearts will be in their mouths. He is playing Australia and nothing will ever be better than that. But he has not forgotten where he came from as he remembered yesterday when he was asked about his proudest moment.

Flintoff, long before he became Freddie, played his first game for Lancashire Under-11s when he was nine. He was awarded a cap with a red rose which he wore for three weeks. How the audience loved that and the story about his first ever match for Dutton Forshaw Under-11s in Preston when he was six and out for a duck.

He knows he is a better bowler than ever – "but it's too late" – but has a fond wish to hit the Aussies for six with the bat. "I'm still a batter, I still want to perform, but most of all I want to be there and performing."

Win 10 places at Andrew Flintoff Cricket Academies

We've teamed up with The Co-operative Food to give away 10 places at Andrew Flintoff Cricket Academies around Britain. The places are available to boys and girls aged seven to 16, and the courses last five days, with the aim of developing cricket skills and having fun.

"It would be great to produce the next star, but it's just as important to inspire someone who has never played the game before to take up the sport, and for cricket to then have a positive impact on their life, regardless of how good they become," says Flintoff. "So if your son or daughter is a keen cricket fan this a unique cricketing experience."

The dates and locations of the courses are: Amesbury, Surrey (3-7 August), Worcester (3-7 August); York (3-7 August); Bedford (10-14 August); Bath (10-14 August); Nottingham (10-14 August); Peterborough (17-21 August); Alderley Edge (17-21 August).

Each winner also receives a free academy cricket shirt, and there is a final awards ceremony at each academy with prizes, certificates and giveaways. Flintoff, or another past or present England player, will visit each academy.

To enter, answer the following simple question: Against which nation did Andrew Flintoff make his Test debut?

Email your answer to: competitions@independent.co.uk, stating your full address and daytime telephone number, putting the name of the academy you wish to attend in the subject field.

The Andrew Flintoff Cricket Academy in partnership with The Co-operative Food – Good With Food! For more information visit www. andrewflintoffcricketacademy.co.uk

* Terms & conditions: Entries must be received by Friday 24 July. Winners will be picked at random and notified by telephone or email on Wednesday 29 July. The Editor's decision is final. Only one entry per household. See www.independent.co.uk/legal for standard Independent terms and conditions.

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