Andrew Flintoff has robustly rejected any doubts over his commitment to England. Having provided the ECB with the requested guarantee of his availability, the all-rounder yesterday pointedly stressed the sacrifices he made to help England win the Ashes and said that nobody can question his motivation to play for his country.
Flintoff is still in the early stages of rehabilitation after his latest knee operation and has yet to set any date for a return, but when he is fit – at best next spring – the 31-year-old will have England as his unassailable priority. There will, he says, be no "picking and choosing" of games.
"Over this last Ashes summer some of the things I did to get on that cricket field... I don't think my motives can ever be questioned. It was a struggle towards the end," said Flintoff, who played in growing discomfort through four of the five Tests. "I'll do everything I can to get back in the England side. I'm not picking and choosing."
Since Flintoff refused to sign an incremental central contract, offered following his decision to retire from Tests and concentrate on the one-day game, questions have been asked over his priorities. Would he elevate the financial rewards of the IPL above international duties? "I'll be available for every [England] game," said Flintoff at the launch of his autobiography, Ashes to Ashes. "In an ideal world I'd still be playing Test cricket but when you've had six operations in four years you know enough's enough. [Going freelance] is different to the norm so it was always going to be greeted in different ways. Playing for England remains the ultimate – fortunately I've still got that chance. Obviously I want to play in the IPL and for Lancashire as well. I'm comfortable with it. I know my reasons for doing it – I want to be the best one-day player in the world and I have got the opportunity to do that. I want to play for England as long as I possibly can."
Flintoff remains someway from actually playing for England again. He is still on crutches and in November will undergo a scan to discover whether the operation on his right knee has been a success. "I won't really know until I start playing again," he said. "The chances are good. I'm hopeful. I'll be on crutches for 12 weeks. I think I've spent about a year of my life on crutches – in the past four years I've spent over two years doing rehab."
It may be a state that he has become wearily accustomed to, but familiarity has not made rehab any easier to cope with. It is empty time, something Flintoff clearly struggles with, moments when the doubts can kick in. "I've three young kids – I'm stuck on the couch pointing crutches and shouting at them," he said. "The first two weeks were the hardest. When I got home it felt like everything was happening in the outside world and I was just sat on my couch. I had a lot of time to think, firstly about the rehab and what it's going to be like, and secondly to get my head around not playing Test cricket. I've dealt with that in some sort of way but this winter when the lads are playing in South Africa it will hit home properly."
Yet after more than a decade and 79 games in the Test side, he remains adamant that he has made the right decision. "When I announced my retirement it was a big release," said Flintoff of his decision ahead of the Lord's Test in July. "I was able to go out and enjoy the moment and that's how I intend to play the rest of my career. I've had times when it's been tough and that's helped me. As bad as some of the times have been it's been a massive learning curve. I wouldn't be on these crutches If I didn't think there's more to come. I love playing cricket so I'm going to give myself every chance to comeback."
Flintoff aims to play on beyond the 2011 World Cup, but injury will leave its legacy when he does retire. "I've been told I'm going to suffer from arthritis. Other things have been mentioned – knee replacements... I'm hoping for advances in medical science," he says, a grin spreading across his face.
But he will go on, and go on in his own way, ignoring advice to temper the vigor with which he approaches every game – such as reining his bowling back into a more containing style – in order to lessen the pressure on his battered body. "I can't do it. I always have to run in and let it go," he said. "There's no compromising."
How Harmison helped Freddie win the Ashes
It was a word from Steve Harmison that helped Andrew Flintoff deliver one of the most telling blows against Australia en route to the Ashes – the destruction of Phillip Hughes, their rising star. "We were watching Harmy bowling to Hughes [for England Lions] and when Harmy hit him on the head first ball it was a huge lift," said Flintoff. "Before Cardiff he told me how to get him out – 'if you come round the wicket it will take six balls'. It took about nine..." Flintoff dismissed Hughes twice in three innings before the Australian was dropped.