Muhammad Ali did it. So did Michaels Schumacher and Jordan. Frank Sinatra made virtually a second career out of it. Now Andrew Flintoff is joining the illustrious cast of those who simply could not resist returning to what it was they did best and for whom the walk into the sunset became swathed in shadow.
After weeks of conjecture Lancashire formally announced on Friday that Flintoff will return to playing for the county in this season’s T20 Blast. The likelihood is that he will make his professional comeback in the Roses match against Yorkshire at Old Trafford next Friday.
But first he will truly go back to where it all began by playing for St Annes, his boyhood club, in the Northern League against Penrith today. He has not batted, bowled or fielded in an organised match since he appeared in England’s victory against Australia at The Oval in 2009, which secured the Ashes.
Flintoff has been training with Lancashire for the last month and there have been several false starts before the official declaration yesterday. The county website was instantly updated so that its promotion for Lancashire Lightning in their T20 campaign included the tagline Fred Is Back.
It is difficult to know who will be spoiling whose party next Friday when Kevin Pietersen is also expected to play for Surrey in the same competition in his first match in this country since being sacked by England. That makes it truly like the old days when the pair vied to be the biggest deal in the dressing room.
If the next few weeks are bound to be a circus it is also true that Flintoff will put bums on seats. He was the biggest draw in English cricket since Ian Botham for almost a decade – and if Sir Ian, at 58, came back tomorrow people would flock to see him too.
Flintoff is a mere 36. Many cricketers have had substantial international careers beyond that age. In the last 50 years, Tom Graveney, Geoff Boycott, Colin Cowdrey and Graham Gooch all played Tests in their forties.
There is no doubt that Flintoff has missed the smell of the liniment, of which he had to use plenty throughout an initial career in which his body was in constant rebellion against the tasks he was asking it to perform.
Towards the end he might have become slightly high maintenance – the Flintoff End of the Road Show dominated the 2009 Ashes after he announced on the eve of the Second Test that he was quitting – but it is also clear that he loved playing.
There was poignancy in his interview with BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday when he told of his disappointment at being overlooked for the match between MCC and a World XI in July to mark the bicentenary of Lord’s. He recalled taking a call from John Stephenson, MCC’s cricket secretary.
“I thought the call was to tell me where to turn up and who was in the side,” Flintoff said. “The kids were in the car and he told me they didn’t want me. He said they’ve got Brian Lara and all these other people.
“I saw my kids’ faces and that’s the first time they’d seen their dad told he can’t do something. They said: ‘Never mind, there will be other games’. And I thought: ‘There will be, actually’.”
Flintoff has obviously enjoyed his time in the Lancashire nets these past few weeks – “I’m stood in there with a bat in my hand and I’m just grinning” – and they have enjoyed him. He might have forgotten some of what made him, but at heart he is still the big kid from Preston.
His ankle has been playing up a bit recently, which delayed his return and intended outings for the county second team have come to nought because of rain.
There should be no doubts about the inherent fitness of a man who took part in a professional boxing bout and has been involved in a series of TV outdoor challenges but cricket will unquestionably repeat the questions it asked of his body up until five years ago and which he might have forgotten.
“I’m playing,” he said, “for the reasons that I first started playing cricket, because I love the game and I enjoy it.”
Circus or not, many will want front row seats to see the old ringmaster.