Flintoff faces the surgeon's table – and his final Test reckoning

Reluctant hero retires with a legacy that goes beyond personal triumphs
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Andrew Flintoff denied his greatness yesterday but he was fooling nobody. The quality, as he had so resoundingly demonstrated again in one single moment the previous evening, goes beyond mere figures and is about much more than simple achievement.

At the moment of victory at The Oval when England had brought the Ashes home again, Flintoff did not immediately join the hubbub created so spontaneously by his colleagues. His instinct was different: he went over to the crestfallen Australians and offered them his hand and his sympathy. It was a telling gesture.

And then in the confines of the England dressing room a little while later when the roar of the crowd could still be heard and the knowledge was fast sinking in that his Test career was done, he had to pull himself together to ensure that he was not seen crying in public.

Flintoff, Fred as he is known to all and sundry and shall be for the rest of this article, spoke tenderly of these matters yesterday. It was a morning after the night before that bore no resemblance to the antics of 2005, the last time England had deprived Australia of the oldest trophy in the game.

He was in reflective mood, partly because he was walking into the Test sunset via a visit to the surgeon's table. There one final attempt will be made to clear his knee of the mess which so nearly ruined his valedictory parade and make it possible for him in a few months to resume a career in limited-overs cricket.

Partly, it might have been because he knew that as far as mass press conferences go this was it until the very last one of all so he might as well relax. But mostly, the warrior wanted to pay respects to the game.

"I think when you play in a series like that you have to respect the opposition," he said. "We had plenty of time to celebrate and enjoy each other's company so I think it's par for the course to show the opposition some respect and shake their hands."

Respect was the theme that ran through his little discourse as, it can be easily seen, it has run through his career. Fred has followed the simple dictum that to win you need somebody to beat. The manner in which he played every game reflected that and it stayed with him to the end on Sunday. "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."

It should be pointed out that he is no secular saint, this Fred. He has foibles like the rest of us and he can be surly if the mood takes him. He has squandered no opportunity to take commercial advantage of his fame and his talent.

Indeed, it became slightly irksome that he would appear near the England team – infamously at Lord's during a World Twenty20 match this summer – sporting clothing made by the sporting goods company which sponsors him but is in direct opposition to that sponsoring the England cricket team. He has rarely overlooked the chance to be seen drinking a certain popular energy beverage, often on the England balcony, and if one fears for his teeth one should not have worries about a decaying Fred bank balance.

But what he has in spades is the ability to engage with the public and almost everybody who watches cricket, a straightforward human warmth which made him a natural hero. Sure, it was the way he played, the distance he hit the ball, the sheer bloody effort of his bowling but he was also the man on the Preston tram.

He has changed over the years because people do. In the old days he would not and could not have done a gig like yesterday. On an early tour when some story was brewing about some Fred injury it was decided that he would speak but only to two or three of us who would then let the others know what he had said.

Now he has audiences, though not always reporters, eating out of his hand and one day, if he wants it, a career in television punditry awaits. Marriage, three children, his regular assignations with surgeons because of the multitude of injuries that have affected him, and the sheer hard slog of international cricket have all changed him. Essentially, however, he is the same Fred. The public recognise that.

"The cricket is one thing, but I want some friends afterwards," he said. "That's far more important. People talk about injuries and what I could have achieved but I've got no idea. I'm proud to have played for England and I'm proud to have played for a successful team."

But the injuries have curtailed his Test career, cut short at 79 matches when it might have been 50 more. There is a slight sense of desperation in his ambition now – or at least when the rehabilitation from the latest surgery is complete – to become the greatest limited-overs cricketer in the world but nobody should make the mistake of assuming he does not mean it and will not make it.

Still, he has left Test cricket at the right time as a moment in the dressing room on Sunday confirmed. "I was looking at the lads and seeing how happy they were and then I looked at my wife and kids and it was then I realised I'd made the right decision," he said. "As good as that was, they are my life, my kids, my family. I'm probably not going to get 25,000 people in my house chanting my name, but for me spending time with the family and having the opportunity to do that is far more important."

Fred said that greats of the game achieved greatness over a long time playing Test after Test after Test. "I've never achieved greatness and I didn't profess to either."

In that case we shall have to thrust it on him.

Flintoff's figures

Test Batting record (1998-2009)
Matches 79
Runs (ave) 3,845 (31.77)
Highest score 167
100s Five 50s 26

Test bowling record
Runs (ave) 7,410 (32.70)
Wickets 226
Best innings bowling 5/58
Best match bowling 8/156
Economy 2.97