There were piercing shrieks in the background when Andrew Flintoff phoned me from Barbados on Monday, so it was reassuring to discover that he wasn't in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Bridgetown, but the children's club at the Hilton hotel. "There are 10 kids running around, including two of mine," he said, with the weary tone of a man who would much rather be in the nets fending off short-pitched deliveries from his mate Steve Harmison.
Chance would be a fine thing. Flintoff is crocked again, this time with a grade-two muscle tear in his hip. He is absent from the fourth Test currently unfolding in Bridgetown and is due to have another scan today which will indicate whether the likelihood of him being fit in time to play in the fifth Test in Trinidad is non-existent or merely slim. "It's frustrating," he said, with understatement, while around him the shrieking got louder. "Hang on a second," he said. "Holly! Holly! Let Corey have a go!" This wasn't how it was meant to be.
And yet it is all too predictable. The most recent year in which Flintoff was ever-present in the England team was 2005, English cricket's annus mirabilis. He took 68 Test wickets, not a few of them Australian, at an average of 24.71. In 2004 he had been slightly less effective with the ball in Test cricket but even more formidable with the bat, averaging 52.82. In those two brilliant years he anointed himself unequivocally as England's finest all-rounder and most potent talisman since Ian Botham, and, notwithstanding Kevin Pietersen, England still have no greater weapon than a fit and firing Freddie. But this is the 60th Test he has missed since making his debut in 1998, a grim statistic which I would run by him if it didn't seem downright cruel. What happened? Did he smash a mirror while practising his cover drive, or clobber a black cat?
"Well, it certainly doesn't seem like I ever just get a niggle," he said, grimly. "It's a proper injury every time."
There has been much talk this week of whether Flintoff's latest injury endangers his participation in the hugely lucrative Indian Premier League in April, or indeed whether, even if fit, it would be seemly to chase the rupees with an Ashes summer looming and the ever-present risk of him tearing or pulling or spraining something. But the man himself would not countenance the idea of the Chennai Super Kings getting along without him. "By the time the IPL comes along I'll be fit," he said. "It's not an injury that will take weeks, or that needs an operation." Would he contemplate withdrawing from the IPL if doctors advised him that the wham-bam nature of 20/20 might aggravate old injuries? "That's all ifs and buts, I'm only concerned about my immediate fitness," he said, a slight testiness discernible even over the background hullabaloo. And he would back himself now to be fit for the Ashes? "Of course, yeah."
I changed the subject. It must have been odd to have been in Antigua when the Stanford affair erupted? "It was, yeah. I saw the queues outside the banks, people trying to get their money out."
His team-mate Pietersen has called Allen Stanford a sleazebag; would he concur? "I wasn't in his company for long enough to form an opinion, to be honest. I met him when we got there [to Antigua for the so-called Stanford Super Series] and that was about the sum of it. It's been a circus from start to finish, and it's carrying on that way. It's not often you get a chance to play a game for a million dollars, but it's not a week I'll miss if we don't go again. It wasn't the most pleasurable week of my life, I must admit."
His refusal to endorse Pietersen's broadside at Stanford seemed significant to me. Flintoff is too decent and honest a character to make retrospective judgements in public about a man whose money he was happy to accept, and even as I prodded him for his feelings about Giles Clarke and David Collier of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who refuse to acknowledge their craven foolishness in hooking the reputation of English cricket to the rotor blades of the Texan's hired helicopter, I knew that I would get nowhere. "That's not my business, that's got nothing to do with me," he said, understandably, when I asked whether he would like to have seen Clarke and Collier resign. Fair enough, but did he hold private opinions? "Not really."
It was time to change the subject again: all-out for 51. Heck, I have spoken to Flintoff quite a few times but never armed with so many tricky questions. How on earth could a side widely expected to be too strong for the West Indies have collapsed, in that first Test in Jamaica, to their third-lowest total in English cricket history?
I fancied I could hear him wincing. "I've been involved in some collapses, but none quite like that. It was bizarre. It happened so quickly. I'm not sure they bowled that well, but they kept bowling us out. We sat in the dressing room afterwards in a complete state of shock. We couldn't believe what had just happened. But the nature of the game is that you play again very soon after, and we came back in the best possible way, posting 566 runs in the first innings in Antigua."
What, though, of his own form? Before the injury there were suggestions that he might no longer be reliable enough to bat at No 6 for England, and while his team-mates put the West Indian attack to the sword in Antigua, Flintoff bagged a pair. "Yeah," he said, "but I played fine in Jamaica [43 and 24] and that first ball in Antigua would have got rid of every batsman every time. It didn't bounce. So yes, it was a pair, and a little bit embarrassing, but I'm not overly worried about it. I'm not playing badly. I just need a run of games without getting injured."
To which all his fans, which surely includes all supporters of the England cricket team, would say amen. But they would also say that Flintoff the all-rounder is these days very much a bowler who bats. The only man who thinks of him as a batter who bowls is Flintoff himself.
"Yeah, I'm too stubborn to admit it," he said. "But I do need to start thinking like a batter again, because recently I've been thinking, 'If I get out I'll try to take wickets and contribute that way'. I don't think you should think that [batting] at No 6. You need to play as a batsman, which I've done before and need to do again."
Does he ascribe the apparent waning of his batting powers to technical as well as mental shortcomings, though? A thoughtful pause. "Well, my bowling technique is simple. I hold the seam up, get it down as fast as I can and try to land it somewhere close. That's what I need to do with my batting. I used to think, even when I was scoring lots of runs, that I needed to get technically better, but that wasn't right. I've always had a sound technique and I grew up with a method I trusted. See it and hit it. That's still what I need to do, but maybe with a little bit of refinement especially against spinners. I've had some help from [coach] Andy Flower. He was a fine player of spin, wasn't he, and he's encouraged me to manoeuvre the ball a little bit, especially in one-day cricket. To use my hands and feet a bit better to get off strike, not just eat up balls while waiting for one to dong."
I moved on to the subject of the 2009 Ashes, in which we hope to see him donging the Aussie attack to all parts. But can these Ashes possibly be as thrilling, can any series be as thrilling, as in 2005? "I can't imagine so. Every Test match had something different, didn't it? I wouldn't say it was impossible, but I'd be amazed if I ever played in a series as entertaining or tightly contested. I think it was a one-off."
It was plainly the most glorious peak of his career so far, and just as plainly, there is no doubting that the Ashes winter of 2006-07 was its deepest trough. At least he has the consolation of knowing, I ventured, that the worst experience of his career is behind him.
"I hope so. It was awful. To captain a side that loses 5-0, and you don't play particularly well yourself, it was embarrassing. And having to make the losing captain's speech at Sydney in front of 40,000 people, before Ricky Ponting got up to make a very different one, that was a tough, tough thing to do. Things like that stay in the memory."
Could he have done a better job as captain? "Erm, I've never really dissected it. After the event, or at the time sitting in an air- conditioned room, it's easy to say what you should have done, but in the heat of the moment, with your mind racing, it's hard. I tried to go with my gut feelings, but whatever they were, there were another 50 permutations. I found it quite a lonely job, actually, because when you're getting beat people go into themselves. There's an element of self-preservation, which isn't healthy in a team sport."
Nor, of course, is factionalism. I had to ask Flintoff to shed some light on the enduring rumours that he loomed large among those who privately favoured former coach Peter Moores in his differences with Pietersen, and was thus instrumental in Pietersen losing the captaincy. He robustly denied it. "The way in which I played cricket under Kevin speaks for itself. Obviously, I knew they [Moores and Pietersen] weren't getting on, but I didn't realise the severity of it. Anyway, there's no point dwelling on that now."
Indeed, so instead I steered him back to the future, to this summer's Ashes and specifically to Ponting, the lone survivor of Australia's so-called big five, now that Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden have hung up their baggy green caps. Just how much is he looking forward to steaming in against Ponting this summer, hip, back, ankle, pinkie finger, or whatever, permitting?
"Well, they're the people you want to bowl at, the Pontings, Laras, Tendulkars. It brings out the best in you, because if you're slightly off the mark you get found out. The one I'm in awe of is Sachin [Tendulkar]. He's not much older than me, you know, but he started playing international cricket when I was playing for Lancashire Under-13s. And when you play against someone like that, you hold them in such high esteem that you try to earn their respect as well. I want him to acknowledge me as a decent bowler, so I try my nuts off. It's the same with [Rahul] Dravid."
Flintoff's humility was genuine. It is eight years since I first met him, and he seems as grounded now as ever, except when he pushes off from the beach in the dead of night, drunk in charge of a pedalo. I impolitely reminded him of that episode, in the West Indies two years ago next month, which led to him being relieved of the England vice-captaincy, and asked whether he could foresee any circumstances in which he might again lead England? "I don't think so. There won't be any repeat performance of that, of course, but the captaincy? I'm not sure I'd do it again and I wouldn't get asked. I've found my role, and I can lead in my own way, in the way in which I play."
We'll all settle for that.
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