It was during the 2002 Lord's Test against India that Andrew Flintoff's qualities as a cricketer and man came to the fore for me. Having played in his Test debut against South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1998 and shared a chalet in Ashford, Kent, with him during England's preparations for the 1999 World Cup, I had already come to know and enjoy the company of the man. But it was when he was placed under a hot sun, working on a benign pitch and faced with a star-studded Indian batting line-up that Flintoff's commitment and desire to compete stood out.
Watching Andrew run in hard, with his body saturated in sweat, and bowl over after over after over in the most testing of circumstances made me feel immensely proud that he was representing England. He may have only picked up a couple of wickets but it was inspiring stuff, commitment that brought a tear to your eye. Bowlers that stand out when conditions are in their favour but disappear when it gets tough have their uses. But it is when faced with adversity that players show their true character, and on that occasion Flintoff made an impression that will live with me for ever.
Flintoff performed similar feats on many other occasions, including at The Oval in the 2005 Ashes, when he bowled for an entire two-hour session to knock the Australians back when they were looking dangerous. But, if we are being totally honest, he has not won as many Tests for England as he should have. And that is why comparisons with Sir Ian Botham are somewhat unfair to English cricket's latest knight. Botham produced what could be regarded as 41 outstanding performances for England during his career – 27 five-wicket hauls and 14 hundreds. Flintoff has produced just seven – two five-wicket hauls and seven hundreds.
There were periods with the bat when he looked capable of holding down the No 6 position, especially between 2004 and 2006 when he scored centuries against South Africa, the West Indies and Australia. With confidence high, Flintoff is an extremely dangerous player, capable of smashing the best bowlers in the world. But his confidence with the willow is fragile and there have been too many occasions when he has looked devoid of ideas, especially against a top-quality spinner.
With the ball, he has never looked out of his depth, which is bizarre when you consider he believed he was a batsman who bowled a bit. Flintoff may have not bowled for a month but he could just turn up and turn it on. The problem is that injury has prevented him from turning it on as often as England and he wanted.
The mystery to most people is that his marvellous and wholehearted bowling have rarely been rewarded with a bagful of wickets. I cannot count the number of times I felt that he deserved five or six wickets yet only had one or two to his name.
Was that bad luck or not? In some ways yes, in others no. There were numerous occasions when the catches were dropped but overall he probably pitches the ball a couple of inches wider and five feet shorter than, say, Glenn McGrath or Curtly Ambrose. And it was that difference, the fact he did not bowl enough balls that threatened the stumps, which prevented him picking up the same volume of wickets as bowlers of a similar style.
As a man, off the field he is larger than life. Yes, he has flaws, but there are very few of us who do not. Even as a journalist I got on very well with him and on one evening at a karaoke bar in Colombo, Sri Lanka, wearing a tight-fitting Sylvester the Cat outfit and having a microphone to himself, he kept hitting me on the head, for fun, with the microphone. What can you do in such a situation? If you get upset and confront him he will rugby tackle you into a corner. The other option is to go off to bed. In the end I just accepted it – the alcohol killed the pain after a while, anyway.
Flintoff does not deal in half measures. Everything he does – whether bowling in testing conditions, smashing the ball relentlessly out of the park or drinking on a night out – is in excess. If he commits to something he does so 100 per cent. It is the same with friends. If he likes you there is nothing he would not do for you. If you have crossed him, watch your step.
The inability to throw himself at the toughest of challenges – 40 overs in a Test match – undoubtedly encouraged him to come to the decision he has, and it is probably the right decision. Yes, Flintoff will disappear off to the Indian Premier League and earn a fortune – proving that Test cricket, not Twenty20, is the place for young, fit, resilient bodies – but he still has a major role to play in England's limited-overs cricket. He is only 31 and with the right management and commitment, could play for England for another five years.
It is sad to see him go because, with a cricket bat and ball in his hand, he represents everything that is good in Test cricket. He will be missed but I am sure we will see a lot more of him over the coming years.