Heroes should always be remembered for what they were. Andrew Flintoff is a copper-bottomed hero. They do not come any more legitimate. An Ashes legend, an opponent who combined genius, skill and effort, a sportsman nonpareil, a competitor who continually defied injury, a legendary drinker, a spontaneously amusing raconteur. He had the lot.
The announcement yesterday that he would miss the rest of this season because of a chronic knee complaint was almost as inevitable as it was comically sad. The immediate reaction to it among many people was probably: "Heavens, is he still around?"
Flintoff, our Freddie, is in danger of becoming an irritatingly peripheral figure, hanging around, determined to have a few more pay days. At this rate, his legacy – so dramatically, valiantly earned – will be diminished.
It is all but a year since his final, decisive intervention on a cricket field. On the concluding afternoon of the 2009 Ashes series, with Australia just beginning to dream impossible dreams through their captain, Ricky Ponting, it was Flintoff who pounced at mid-on, picked up and threw down the stumps. Ponting, trying to scurry a single, was run out by two feet.
The session, the day, the match, the series and the destiny of the urn were turned irrevocably. Australia lost by 197 runs and Flintoff's status was further burnished. Within two days, he had surgery on the fragile right knee which had already partially disrupted his summer and provoked his retirement from Test cricket.
Since then, he has been permanently in rehabilitation or recovery, desperately trying to shore up his body one last time for some lucrative Twenty20 pay days. Or, as he put it that morning before the Lord's Test last year, when it was clear his body was at last demanding retribution for what he had required from it, to become the best limited-overs cricketer in the world.
It was an extravagant aspiration then and it has begun to look faintly ludicrous in the long months since, ill -becoming the man who had expressed it. This seemed to culminate yesterday with the unsurprising news that Flintoff would not, after all, be appearing for Lancashire this season.
"Whilst Andrew has made significant progress, the combined opinion is that he is not quite ready for a return to cricket," Lancashire cricket director, Mike Watkinson said, on the county's website. "He will continue his rehabilitation into the winter months and we will constantly monitor and review his progress so that he is better equipped for a return to action."
At the weekend, it had been confirmed that Flintoff intended to appear in two matches for Lancashire second XI this week, a one-day match followed by a three-day match. This was intermingled with planted stories that the all-rounder was on the verge of signing Twenty20 contracts with Queensland Bulls to play in the KFC Big Bash in Australia and Northern Districts in New Zealand, not to mention participation in the Champions League with Chennai Super Kings.
All that seemed to fit perfectly with the notion of his being the first itinerant limited-overs cricketer, a player in step with the T20 times. Or a globe-trotting mercenary, a player for sale. That will now be on hold. He signed an optimistic three-year deal with Lancashire last November. That might be considered to take precedence.
No club can afford to sign him on the basis of the latest medical evidence assembled, belatedly it would seem, after discussions between Flintoff, Andy Williams, the eminent surgeon who operated on the meniscus tear in his knee, and the medical team at Lancashire. The latest withdrawal was eccentrically timed at best.
Late last week, it was being presumed without contradiction that Flintoff was on his way back. Reporting teams and camera crews were marshalled – although not as many or as enthusiastically as would once have been the case. Flintoff had been out for a year, had two operations, had gradually built up strength. Then suddenly, it was not that his return was being delayed by another few days, but indefinitely once more.
Flintoff, who will be 33 in December, may yet defy his body and a growing army of sceptics. It is in his tough, cussed nature. He did not achieve what he has by being soft. But he would be advised to go now, or otherwise simply seem like desiring to play only for the sake of the new money. Four overs a match and an occasional whack in the middle should not be too demanding. Intense, perhaps, but easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy compared to the demands of a long Test series.
Nominally at least, Flintoff still harbours ambitions to resume his England career. Considering his obvious talents – he could still hit the ball as hard as anybody, he could still put his first ball on a sixpence on yorker length – it is always considered foolish to write these off. But England have moved on since he walked out of The Oval on 22 August last year and offered reflections on his career the following morning. "I'd sooner be regarded as a decent bloke than whatever cricket I played," he said. "That's far more important to me. What you do on the cricket field is one thing, but being able to face yourself every day in the mirror and know you're not a bad egg is far more important."
He might think of those words again now. It is possible that, towards the end anyway, Flintoff, was not as popular in the dressing room as he was – and surely still is – in the streets of England. There was too much sponsored baggage for a start and latterly there was the hue of a Flintoff carnival going from town to town and country to country, even when the bloke himself was not there.
There is the perception among some that Flintoff has changed, that he has moved away from being the man on the Preston omnibus; that he began revelling in the fame and seeking more of the fortune. The other week, his management company was forced to part company with Flintoff's long-time friend and collaborator who had been taken on as, among other things, Flintoff's press agent. The all-rounder's silence was deafening. Maybe he was too busy working on the knee.
England – Twenty20 champions and recent victors over both South Africa and Australia in the 50-over game – may suppose they no longer need Flintoff and indeed are better off without him. Any team could do with his one-day skills but it is difficult to see what precisely he could do to improve on that. He would be, heaven forfend, an outsider in that dressing room.
As it stands now, it is far more pleasant to think of Freddie in his pomp – the kid who took an age to realise what it took to make it at the top, but then made it. Carousing and injury, abstinence and rehab went hand-in-hand for a few years but twice he peaked when it mattered. In 2005 and 2009 on most of the cricket grounds of England, he performed imperishable deeds against Australia. It is those for which he could be recalled, not some banal statement that he could not make the line for Lancashire II.
Flintoff's knee problems
Forced to leave Indian Premier League early to undergo keyhole surgery for a cartilage tear in his right knee. Misses World Twenty20, returning to county action seven weeks later.
Suffers recurrence of knee injury during first Ashes Test in Cardiff, causing him to announce retirement at end of series. Misses fourth Test but helps England regain Ashes in final appearance.
Undergoes surgery on right knee after operation is brought forward, before developing deep vein thrombosis in calf.
And those other injuries
Broke left foot in South Africa in 1999, returning home early, while a double hernia operation in August 2002 caused him to miss the Champions Trophy. Underwent four ankle operations between 2005 and 2007, the last of which kept him out for five months. Missed New Zealand series in 2008 after straining left side playing for Lancs.