It is hardly the vision the South Africans expected. The last time they had seen Andrew Flintoff in 2003 he was slogging their bowlers into the stands and bullying their batsmen with 90mph thunderbolts. His brutal and uncomplicated style of cricket helped to crush Graeme Smith's side at The Oval and take England to a remarkable series-levelling victory.
But here he is, the man whose arrival all South Africans were dreading, proudly pushing a pram around the Sandton City shopping arcade in Johannesburg. For those struggling to believe that this is the same person, there is a give-away. Lying next to Holly, his three-month-old daughter, is a 27th birthday present given to Andrew by his fiancée, Rachael. It is a doll, but it does not have long blond hair. It is Fred Flintstone, the cartoon character from which Flintoff derives his nickname.
"At times I have to pinch myself," he says as he relaxes at the England team hotel. "I look at her and I cannot believe that we have produced this person. This little person who is totally dependent on us. Her arrival has certainly altered my priorities. I am a cricketer, but first and foremost I am now a father to her. I am no longer just playing for myself, I am playing to provide for her and to give my family the best life I can."
I ask him whether he has yet changed nappies or got up for the 3am feed. "I've done the lot," he says. "Well, all right, the nappies more than the feeding. The thing is that when I got up to do it Rachael used to get up to make sure I was doing it right. She's better at doing it than me anyway."
This is all good stuff, but it is not the "Freddie" Flintoff English crowds love. This does not sound like the all-rounder who fearlessly bulldozes his way through opponents, casting bowlers and batsman ruthlessly aside as he takes his team to another memorable victory.
But England fans need not fear. Freddie has not gone soft, nor has he lost his appetite for cricket. Flintoff may be a little rusty, after a two-month break from cricket, but catering for his new family provides him with all the motivation he needs, and he expects England to defeat South Africa in the five-Test series which starts here today.
During the last 18 months, since he met Rachael, Flintoff has transformed himself from a wild, undisciplined underachiever into England's most influential cricketer. His close mate, Stephen Harmison, may take vital wickets, but it is Flintoff who inspires.
The all-rounder's selfless and committed approach sets an example that every member of Michael Vaughan's side should follow. And they do because Flintoff never shirks any of his responsibilities and he wins them games. The opposition may be 480 for 2, and the sun may be out, but he will still run in and give it his all over after over. Cricketers, well good ones anyway, do not want to let someone like that down.
It also helps when you perform as well as Flintoff has this year. In both forms of the game he has been outstanding. In Test cricket he has already scored 804 runs at an average of 57 and taken 35 wickets at 25. And in the one-day game he has smashed 633 runs at 58 and grabbed 16 wickets at 21.
But averages do not interest him. "I've never been too bothered with averages," he admits. "The big thing for me is influencing and helping England win games of cricket. I scored a hundred against South Africa at Lord's in 2003. It was good for my average but it was pointless. We lost. I was much happier this year against New Zealand at Headingley. Batting was difficult and I grafted and I got out in the nineties but it helped us win."
Flintoff's metamorphosis has coincided with him leading a more disciplined life. When he was young he was overweight and injured but the one-time party animal, with a penchant for beer and burgers, has, to a large extent, reformed. Flintoff feels that his cricket has made a 50 per cent improvement since he realised his approach was wrong. And he still feels there is more to come.
But, thankfully, he still affords himself the odd big night out, as those who attended a karaoke bar in Colombo 12 months ago will testify. England had just lost to Sri Lanka by an innings and 215 runs, the second-heaviest defeat in their history, but Flintoff appeared at the bar wearing a Sylvester the Cat outfit he had borrowed from a member of the "Barmy Army". It was quite a tight fit, but at that time of the evening it did not appear to worry the Lancastrian.
For some reason, unbeknown to me, I had become the target of his high spirits and he proceeded to whack me over the head with a portable microphone every time our paths crossed. Not only did the dull thud of it hitting me interrupt those attempting to sing along to Tom Jones and Robbie Williams; it hurt. But there is nothing you can do to Flintoff when he is in this mood. If you tried to grab the mike off him he would rugby tackle you and he is too strong to think of manhandling so your options are to take it, or leave. I chose the first.
"The baby has changed me, but I will still have my moments," he says, chuckling about the evening in Colombo. "There will still be times when I don't think I can change that dramatically because it is the way I am. I enjoy going out and having a beer with the lads. The times I do it are fewer and further in between, but you still have to go out if you win a Test match or do something special. I am still going to go out but I now get a bollocking from the missus when I come back in."
This attitude may not always please his captain or coach, but the fact people can relate to him is the reason why he is adored wherever he travels. Even this week in Potchefstroom, a university town 90 minutes outside Johannesburg, there was a special cheer when he came out to bat. And the reception he gets today will be like that which greeted Ian Botham in the early Eighties.
But, off the field, Flintoff is not like Botham. He is not interested in film premières and opening restaurants. If he goes out, it is to the pub with a few mates. "I spend little enough time at home as it is," he says. "And I don't see as much of my mates as I would like to. I don't need to meet any new people. I have a good group of friends and family and I enjoy spending time with them. People may think I'm a superstar but I'm not one in our house."
Despite all his success Flintoff, unlike Botham, has yet to crack Australia. Three Ashes series have coincided with his international career, but he has not yet played in a Test match against the Australians.
"I am not looking to wish this winter away, but next summer is going to be very important for me," he says. "I have got to get myself fit and make sure I am playing cricket because in the past I have been injured or not playing well when the Aussies have come around. They are the ultimate test and no matter what you have done before you are going to be judged by your performances against them."Reuse content