Freddie makes dreamers of the nation

At just 26, Flintoff is the talisman of his team and, Stephen Brenkley hears, there's even more to come

These are great days for Andrew Flintoff. They are not necessarily his greatest. Here he is at 26, England's most celebrated cricketer, a buccaneering all-rounder approaching the height of his thrilling powers in a promisingly resilient team. His girlfriend, Rachel, is expecting the couple's first child in October and he is awash with excitement. Last week, he became an author for the first time and he is proud of the coffee-table product. He still manages something of a social life.

Yet there is the sense that we ain't seen nothin' yet, that there is much more to come: runs, wickets, catches, books, the odd glass of red wine, and, if all goes really well, children. Flintoff has an engaging appetite for life that involves living it to the full. He could also sleep for England in between, a habit that may have to change come October.

It has been stirring to watch Freddie Flintoff from his earliest days. He was always a player who could possibly make things happen, but now the chances are that he probably will. His overall Test-match figures after 36 matches (batting average 29.55, bowling average 40.51) are still not much to write home to Preston about, but the significant fact is that in the 15 Tests since the beginning of last summer they have been the respectively respectable 44.64 and 35.03.

His ubiquitous nickname comes from the cartoon character, Flintstone of that ilk, so it is natural that he has become England's Bedrock - for non-aficionados the town where the original Freddie lived. "Every time I turn up at a cricket ground I'm looking forward to playing or practising," he said last week as he split his time typically between being captain of Lancashire in two Twenty20 matches, watching The Open at Troon, going on a book promotional tour and checking the wellbeing of the mother-to-be.

"Everything is going so well. I don't know how good I can be, but I'm only 26, and as a batter hopefully I won't reach my peak until I'm 30 or 31. I'm doing all right at the minute. My game has developed and I trust my technique. I've got areas that I'm strong in and areas where I leave the ball alone a lot more, so I'm a lot more aware. I have to work more on my bowling, but I think Troy Cooley [England's bowling coach] has helped. He just sits down and talks with us all. One-day cricket is fine because it's structured, you bowl your 10 overs and go for as few as you can, but I got into that trap in Test cricket as well. I now go with my gut feeling now and then, trying to take a wicket rather than just sitting back and bowling maidens."

But bowling of any kind would do at present. A spur on the heel of his landing foot is still troubling him. Originally, it forced him to withdraw from the recent one-day triangular tournament, but he came riding to England's rescue as a batsman only and scored consecutive centuries. He bowled in the first Twenty20 game but it was uncomfortable, and there is now the prospect that he might not be able to bowl in the Test series beginning on Thursday. It will unquestionably affect England in terms of balance and penetration.

This is a cloud on England's horizon (cirrus rather than nimbus for the moment), and it is a niggling worry that Flintoff will sometimes be unable to bowl. That is still a better prospect than three years ago, when it was seriously thought that his suspect back might preclude bowling completely. England may have to grow accustomed to his being unable to bowl occasionally, though it would be handy if one of those periods was not next year, when Australia visit and against whom he has yet to play a Test.

For what he calls "a split second" during the one-dayers he thought that cricket might be better without bowling. "I regard myself as a batter who bowls," he said. "Playing in the one-day games it was easier concentrating on one thing, but then I was stood on the boundary all day and the ball wasn't coming to me. I wanted to get involved in the game. It's all very well saying it's giving me a break, but you want a break because you're having a break, not because you're injured."

Sometimes it is still tempting to think of what Freddie could have become, and he is brave enough to remind us of it in his book, My Life In Pictures. Perhaps it is stretching the point to describe him as the author, for the text was written by the veteran BBC sports journalist Pat Murphy. Together they revisit the darker days when Freddie was overweight and drifting. Famously, a lecture in the Old Trafford dressing room from his agents, Chubby Chandler and Neil Fairbrother (also his former colleague), snapped him out of it.

"It was a bollocking and a turning point. I thought I was doing the right things and I wasn't. They told me a few home truths, and I walked out of that meeting thinking, 'Well, that's two blokes I'm close to and respect and if they're saying that they're pretty much right'." A settled home life must also take some credit. "Speak to Rachel and it's all down to her."

Flintoff is now England's fulcrum, batting at five and, if you like, bowling at four. The team have two resounding Test series wins behind them because a lot of players are playing well ("obvious but hard to achieve the right balance"). They are chums as well as colleagues.

"We're all playing for each other and the captain. You can see it's a race to the bowlers when we take a wicket and everybody on the balcony when a hundred or fifty is scored, genuinely pleased. I'm on the phone to the lads all the time. We like each other's company."

It is an imponderable of all sports teams, of course: does friendship provoke the winning or winning provoke friendship? Flintoff may be the fulcrum to that as well. But the feeling is impossible to dispel in the forthcoming series and ones to follow that if he touches greatness, then so might England.

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