Two singular performances from Andrew Flintoff's burgeoning international career continue to dance across the mind's eye. The first was at the National Stadium, Karachi, in October 2000, when England were in the cart and he emerged before 80,000 baying Pakistan supporters and smote their finest to all parts. When he came in, the fans were setting off firecrackers to celebrate victory; when he departed with the side requiring only two runs after his unfettered 84 from 60 balls, they were lighting funeral pyres. Nasser Hussain, England's captain, said later that it was a jolly good innings but that Flintoff still had much to learn. He was right, of course, but it still seemed an inadequate appraisal of what had just been witnessed. This boy could play on a big stage.
The second abiding image is of Flintoff at Wankhede Stadium, Bombay, 15 months later, before another impassioned subcontinental crowd willing victory for their team. Flintoff had been entrusted with the final over in an unfeasibly tight finish. He bowled beautifully, and with his fifth delivery castled Javagal Srinath. In a paroxysm of delight, Flintoff tore off his No 11 shirt and cavorted around the arena, waving it above his head. He could have been at a karaoke night back home. This boy loved playing.
"The one thing lasts for playing quite well, the other for acting like a berk," said Flintoff last week. This is typical of the man. There is no attempt to evade, or obfuscate, or make excuses. After five years of international cricket, in which he has sometimes underachieved and occasionally had his human frailties exposed, there is still no edge to him.
He was at Blackpool last week, where his county, Lancashire, were playing Kent, and eyes and autograph hunters followed him wherever he went. He is entering that stage when he might go beyond being a mere cricketer, but he shows no indication of having changed. He claims hardly to notice the attention. He is genial and gentle, approachable, eager to please and still sometimes a daft lad from Preston. Just Freddie Flintoff.
"Yes, I still go out for a pint," he said. "I'm 25, I like going out for a laugh with the lads. Probably doesn't happen as much as it used to. I know what some people say, pointing fingers, and it ends up in the papers. But life's too short to be bearing grudges. And I don't bother with reading the papers much and I haven't got Sky." He almost never turns down a request for an interview, and this past fortnight he has been pestered for them.
This has been prompted by his increasingly elevated status. There was, initially, the tangible evidence that he had finally cracked the one-day thing: these days, he is simply one of the top limited-overs all-rounders, a player who is likely to influence every game he plays. Now, however, his Test season begins. The five-Test series against South Africa that starts on Thursday could, perhaps should, be the making of Freddie Flintoff. He is fit, hungry at the peak of his game. In the last Test match he played, at Headingley in August 2002, he took one for 68 and bagged a pair. In four Test innings at Leeds he has yet to score ("If I play there this year I think I'm just going to run down the pitch first ball and try to hit it for six." Do not be surprised).
Flintoff's Test-match bowling average is 47 and his batting average is 19. It is quite the wrong way round. He laughed cheekily at being reminded of it. He has plenty to do, and now is the time to do it. At last, his body is in a condition to respond to the demands he is making of it. He has had a rum time with injuries and being out of condition.
His longstanding back problem made it appear at one stage that he would not be able to bowl again. But he amended his action - changing the direction of the front foot - and got fitter. "To hear some people talk, you'd think I started bowling left-arm, not right, but it just wasn't that complicated," he said. "I also think that I was probably too tall and not strong enough for my body before. Maybe I've now grown into it."
But the back was followed by the double hernia of last summer, an injury he played through for too long and was perhaps wrongly encouraged to do so. He took longer than expected to recover from surgery and missed the Ashes. Then, this summer he was hit on the arm by a beamer in net practice and was unavailable for the series against Zimbabwe. But now he is pain-free.
He is also, it should be reported, in splendid condition. Freddie might like the odd good time, but he works hard as well. The puppy fat has long gone. A couple of years ago his agent, Neil Fairbrother, sat him down and read him the riot act, probably quoting his career figures from the current edition of the Playfair Annual.
"I feel as ready to play as at any time," he said. "I'm fit, I've got a stable home life and I'm much more aware of myself and my game. There are definite signs that I'm improving, but I still go hard at the ball and can play the wrong shot. I know I've got to take more wickets, and to do that I've got to get an outswinger or at least get the ball to hold its own. There have been times when my job in Tests has been to help us to sit in and calm things down, but I do need more wickets. I've been asking people like Gus Fraser and Ian Botham for advice. I might experiment with changing the grip on the ball a bit."
There is more to Flintoff than being a gentle, intermittently daft soul. He is a thinking cricketer, and when Michael Vaughan, the new one-day captain, said he wanted 10 lieutenants to help him, Freddie was certainly near the top of the list of commissioned officers. He has an instinct for the nuances of the game. On tour, he has been glimpsed reading the latest Sebastian Faulks as well as the most recent John Grisham.
Flintoff was a good cricketer from an early age, but there was another game at which he also represented Lancashire as a schoolboy. It was chess. "My brother Chris played chess for England and he was as good a cricketer as me, but he wasn't interested enough." Flintoff has not shifted a pawn for years, but was talking about resuming the game in some form the other day. What about introducing it to the dressing room as the game to be played during rain breaks? "Can you imagine playing chess with Goughy?"
If there has been an element of foolhardiness in the way Flintoff has sometimes conducted himself (his dad rang him after the Bombay shirt incident and dressed him down, though in truth it merely demonstrated his joie de vivre), it is inextricably connected with goodwill. He is a cheerful soul, a bundle of fun who can hardly help himself.
He is engaged, but no date has been set for the wedding because his brother is being married next year, and he wants Chris to be the first down the aisle. He feels more settled and says that his fiancée, Rachel, knows when he goes too far. "I need reining in at times."
Flintoff has to carry the burden of all proper all-rounders: the knowledge that when you are bowling well you are probably batting badly and vice versa. At least he has a sympathiser in Duncan Fletcher, England's coach. "[Doing both well] is something I'd like to be able to do, and I must work towards it," he said. "But perhaps in recent times only Ian Botham and Imran Khan have performed both disciplines together." There is, of course, another discipline, and Flintoff excels at this one too, like Botham before him. His stunning catch, flinging himself to his right at gully in the NatWest Series against South Africa, is a huge contender for catch of the season and may well join the two images mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article.
"I've started slowly in Test cricket, I know that, but the one-day game has started to come together," he said. "Other lads like Marcus Trescothick and James Anderson took to it straightaway. If I knew why I didn't quite, then... It was a mixture of me being me, of getting injured. But I've got some experience now and I'm ready."
He has never fretted through his frustrations, but he admits that he could do without many more. He owes this team.
Controversy will always stalk him precisely because he is the kind of player who will empty bars. It did so again last week, not because he had a pint in his hand at the cricket (just one, and it was essential at Stanley Park on Thursday) but because he was not playing for Lancashire. The county chairman, Jack Simmons, was most unhappy that England had pulled him out. "I can understand Jack's annoyance, but there's a lot of cricket coming up for England, and much as I love Lancashire, England's got to come first."
He will rejoin the England Test party tomorrow fresh from Michael Vaughan's refreshing one-day captaincy. Nasser Hussain will resume command, and it will be different surely? "I don't know, it's that long since I've had Nasser as captain." That was Freddie being diplomatic. And has he lost sleep and worried over his absences and lapses? "No, I'm a good sleeper, me." It would be grand if he had reason for whirling the shirt and looking like the karaoke king at a full Oval in September.
Biography: Andrew Flintoff
Born: 6 December 1977 in Preston.
Test career: 21 matches (debut v SA, 1998). Batting: 33 innings, 643 runs at 19.48. Bowling: 33 wickets at 47.15 (best 4-50). Has taken 14 catches.
One-day internationals: 62 matches (debut v Pakistan, 1998). Batting: 1,298 runs at 27.04 (top score 84). Bowling: 59 wickets at 26.0 (best 4-17). Has taken 24 catches.
First-class career: 5,089 runs at 34.38, 114 wickets at 36.25.
Overview: Big all-rounder long touted as Ian Botham's natural successor. Bludgeons the ball with the bat and has touched 90mph when bowling. Injury has curtailed his development.