Lancastrian giant defines the times as England steal nation's heart

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The Independent Online

Warne knew this as well as anyone so he teased Flintoff, flighting a series of balls into the rough outside his leg stump. Flintoff was tempted; tempted enough to play a false shot or two. Chastened, he dabbed the ball square for a single. The crowd roared none the less, a wave of delighted pride rolling across this expanse of Nottinghamshire turf.

The uncomplicated Lancastrian has become the summer's defining figure. His ebullient cricket has typified England's aggressive storming of the crumbling ramparts of Australian supremacy. His consoling of Brett Lee, at the conclusion of the Edgbaston Test, symbolised the enduring appeal of cricket's sporting traditions. At a time when Chelsea's corporate arrogance, Rio Ferdinand's greed and the Premiership's predictability have prompted a disenchantment with football, this combination of English adventure and good manners has given cricket, and Flintoff, a lustre unmatched since the retirement of I T Botham.

Oh dear, three paragraphs in and already Ian Botham has muscled his way into another Flintoff piece.

The comparisons, invidious though they may be, are unavoidable. Flintoff, as Rodney Marsh said memorably yesterday, "is an excitement machine". His batting empties bars and so, increasingly, does his bowling. Both, most importantly, win Test matches.

At Edgbaston his 141 runs and seven wickets underpinned England's victory in the second Test. Yesterday's century put the fourth Test beyond the tourists. It also, their subsequent batting revealed, crushed their spirit, for Flintoff's impact cannot be measured in runs and wickets alone. Like Botham he lifts his team and intimidates opponents.

Where the two differ is off the pitch. The Beefy Excitement Machine did not have an off switch, the Freddie version does. Away from the Test arena he lives quietly in Cheshire with his wife, Rachael, and their baby daughter, Holly. The youngster whose liking for a beer and kebabs led to him being called "Fat Freddie" as he ballooned to 19st has matured into a private family man.

"I don't relish the attention, it's a by-product [of his success]," Flintoff said last night. "I go home in the evening and I'm a father and husband. I enjoy that. I have a close network of friends I spend my time with and I tend to stay away from the sort of places where you get spotted."

The question facing Flintoff is whether this can last? England's Ashes campaign is a team effort but Flintoff is the talisman, the catalyst, the face on the front pages.

Should England recover the urn celebrity will be thrust upon him. Life will change and becoming only the third cricketer (after Jim Laker and you-know-who) to win the BBC television Sports Personality of the Year award will be the good part. Snatched pictures of the family going for a walk in the park will be in Heat magazine, an old girlfriend will tell all in a Sunday red-top and his freedom will feel curtailed. For Flintoff being able to get a table at The Ivy will be no compensation.

This, in the celebrity-fixated culture of England is probably unavoidable. What is within Flintoff's control is the extent of his fame. He has Rachael and Holly's names tattooed on his arms, but he is no David Beckham. He does not seek the spotlight. Last week he went to France because, he explained: "It was difficult to get away from the Ashes in Manchester, but in France they are not bothered."

The exemplar is Jonny Wilkinson. Cricket is not the new football, it is the new rugby union. The current burst of publicity is analogous to that enjoyed by the oval-ball code around England's World Cup triumph. Wilkinson was the Flintoff of that team, a homespun matchwinner. He was also dragged reluctantly into celebritydom but, though he does television advertising, has managed to retain much of his privacy, popularity and sanity.

It is to be hoped Flintoff does too. English cricket needs him if it is to build on this revival. Marsh, who knows better than most the requirements, having kept wicket to the great Australian team of Dennis Lillee and the Chappell brothers, then swapped sides to develop young English talent, believes Flintoff is a future captain.

"He would make a great captain because the players would want to follow him," Marsh said. "He has the qualities that players respond to and he leads by example. He also really thinks about the game and what he is doing out there. It will be interesting to see where his future takes him in the game, but I guess he wouldn't make too many noises about it because he is such a humble guy.

"I just love him. He's so good for cricket, and he is a great man. He's as happy having a beer and a chat with his mates as he is playing Test cricket against Australia."

Sometimes the concept of sportsmen as role models is not so daft.