James Lawton: A warrior who forged his reputation in the heat of Ashes battle

However spectacularly hard he strived to succeed on a certain day he would never be guilty of mistaking cricket for a branch of warfare
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The Independent Online

He wasn't always brilliantly served by the workings of his head but then anyone with a heart and a talent as big as Freddie Flintoff's was always going to blast his way through the most critical judgement.

He wasn't destiny's child as much as one of its most rambunctious warriors.

It meant that when he announced officially yesterday that the toll on his body was too great to permit any further heroics, something that had been assumed for some time, the lack of surprise did little to lessen the sense of loss.

For a little while Flintoff was English cricket in the same way as his great predecessor Sir Ian Botham; the consistent bravura performance of the latter was never truly matched, neither with bat nor ball, but in terms of expectation, a sense of what was possible in any competitive situation, on his best days we were looking at something close to a mirror image.

Both imperilled their careers with reckless behaviour. Both had an appetite for life which led to a blurring of the line between professional responsibility and excessive dependence on their natural gifts, yet when all the glory and the anguish was done their legacies were as broad as the shires from which they came.

If they worked an identical deceit on the England selectors, the one that suggested they might have the temperament to be successful Test captains, they also unfurled similar strength. They could inflict themselves on the action with giant impact, most unforgettably in the battles for the Ashes, and while they were doing it they created huge levels of both pride and affection.

Of course they also invited a particular criticism, one that here has reason to be applied with particular force to Flintoff. It is the one that says he was too careless with his great talent and especially in his batting, which never developed in the way it promised when he was heralded as the new Botham English cricket had craved for so long.

Though his bowling became his greatest weapon, it was also a force that, when set against the greatest performers of the trade, was effective too sporadically to place him in the highest category.

So why does the departure of Flintoff now resonate so far beyond the boundary ropes of cricket? It is because he touched both his supporters and his opponents with a sense that however spectacularly hard he strived to succeed on a certain day he would never be guilty of mistaking cricket for a branch of warfare. If there was any doubt about that he dispelled it for all time when he bent to commiserate with his Australian opponent Brett Lee in the moment of English victory at Edgbaston that turned the 2005 Ashes series.

That was Flintoff's summer. It defined the best of him.

Some of the worst came in the aftermath of that triumph, when it seemed that the hubris which appeared to take over most the team somewhere along their celebratory drive through London to Downing Street had laid a particular claim on Flintoff.

The winning captain Michael Vaughan, whose duties Flintoff would assume so catastrophically when the team went to defend the Ashes in Australia, was pointedly candid about his fear that some of the side might lose their focus on the fact that they were only as good as their last success. "The big need," said Vaughan, "is for the team to keep its priorities, remember that the greatest duty is to remain honest."

Subsequent events could only suggest that Vaughan might have had Flintoff in mind. Before the next series in Pakistan the opposing coach, the late Bob Woolmer, said it would be "interesting" to see how England reacted to their Ashes triumph. His suspicions were somewhat underlined when Flintoff got up in the middle of the night before a match to receive the award on the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show.

The unavoidable conclusion, compounded by his ill-starred captaincy in Australia and the fiasco of his early morning pedalo ride in the Caribbean dawn during the 2007 World Cup, was that he was drinking too deeply from a cup still filled with old success. He was also cursed by the onset of huge celebrity.

But by then Flintoff had made an unbreakable connection with his nation and last year it blazed into life again when he seized the stage of Lord's and bowled Australia to defeat in the second Test. Flintoff, once more, was English cricket and none of his admirers was inclined to dwell on the fact that it was only the third five-for of a Test career that he had announced was at an end.

Mere detail, after all, was always the first casualty when Freddie Flintoff fixed glory in his sights. Nor is it likely to recover as long as anyone remembers how it was when the big man truly warmed to the battle.