A great cricketer left the crease yesterday. If Andrew Flintoff's departure was less an announcement than a confirmation it hardly made his premature retirement from the game any less poignant.
The defective knee, the last of the injuries which dogged a dynamic career, left him no option but to go. Specialists had finally broken the news to him on Wednesday night that the joint would no longer support his declared ambition to become the best one-day player in the world or indeed any kind of player any longer. Non-specialists had worked it out months ago.
It has become fashionable to suspect Flintoff's status as a premier all-round cricketer. The statistics, it is blithely reported, do not testify to a player of enduring achievement. Nor do they, although there are men who only bat or only bowl who would kill for batting averages of 31.78 in Tests and 32.72 in one-day internationals, and bowling averages of 32.02 and 24.38.
But Flintoff, like sportsmen are meant to do, went beyond mere figures. He was a magnificent player because he could and did occasionally turn games, because he made opponents fear what he might do and because, perhaps above all, the way he played the game easily convinced crowds to love him.
And he was, as they say now, a heroic drinker.
It is natural to try to calculate where in the all-rounders' pantheon he resides. Behind Ian Botham? Ahead of Trevor Bailey? Level with Tony Greig? Pretty darned high up. His last captain, Andrew Strauss could hardly have put it better yesterday: "The impact he has had on English cricket has been immense.
"The biggest memories I will have of him are how incredibly able he was to make something happen out of nothing with both bat and ball.
"2005 was his zenith, but he was always the ultimate impact cricketer, somebody who on so many occasions stepped up to the plate. He would put his body on the line on flat wickets when other bowlers were maybe starting to struggle. We are all striving to gain the respect of our peers. Andrew certainly did that."
The image of Flintoff that will live forever was forged in the immediate aftermath of England's pulsating victory by two runs in the second Test match at Edgbaston in the 2005 Ashes series. England had spent the entire fourth morning, a Sunday, doing their damnedest to lose.
Australia's last two wickets edged ever closer to what had been a distant target of 282 and then, suddenly, it was all over. The last man, Mike Kasprowicz, gloved Steve Harmison to the wicketkeeper, Geraint Jones, who took the catch in slow motion.
The world, or at least the English part of it, went crazy in that moment, an outpouring of exultation and relief. Not Flintoff, not our Freddie. He leaned down and commiserated with his heroic, vanquished foe Brett Lee, who had done everything in his power to take Australia to a 2-0 lead in the series.
Whatever Freddie said to Brett then hardly matters (ignore the drollery of the wags who insist that it was less words of consolation than something along the lines of "That's shown you, you Aussie tosser and there'll be more where that came from"). The gesture encapsulated everything that is good, noble and important about professional sport. It was almost a validation.
It is easily forgotten how significant that match was to Flintoff as his career unfolded. He was 27 and at the height of his powers, though the body which he placed under such pressure with his muscular approach in every department had already threatened several rebellions.
Flintoff knew that summer would be the most vital of his life. It was Australia and all that entailed, he was in his pomp, there would never be a better chance. In the first Test at Lord's he failed the audition for greatness, strangely apprehensive as England were hammered.
But Edgbaston made him. He came out flailing with the bat in the first innings and got away with it, five sixes coming in a 64-ball thrash. His second innings 73 was cut from a different, more measured but still vibrant cloth (there were only four sixes). He bowled like the wind.
It was set up then and Flintoff's influence on that epic series never waned. That alone would have been enough to ensure that his name lived for ever, and it almost had to do as injury piled upon injury.
But he made the next Ashes series in Australia. Named wrongly as captain, the tour was an unmitigated disaster. He was a hopeless, floundering skipper who lacked support and England lost 5-0. Yet in his vulnerability at the last there was dignity.
Thankfully, there was one last hurrah. In the 2009 Ashes, Flintoff was patently not fit enough to play. But England still needed him as the fulcrum of the side, the third seamer, the explosive batsman and, little did they know, the sharp-shooter fielder. Because he was Freddie, and only because of that, he made two breathtaking interventions.
On the eve of the second Test at Lord's he announced his retirement from Test cricket (it was then that he also avowed his ambition to be the world's top one-day cricketer, while doubtless hoping to accrue millions from being a Twenty20 mercenary). Feeding off the bountiful public goodwill that ensued, he produced an irresistible spell of bowling which ensured that England beat Australia at Lord's for the first time in 75 years. No man can have limped with such ferocity to figures of 5 for 92.
But Freddie had changed and this was apparent in the personal imagery. Where once he had consoled his opponent he now stood in the middle of the pitch, his arms outstretched, pretending, except for the chewing of gum, to be emotionless, the Angel of the North come to life. It did not look proper; where once he had been spontaneous, this looked contrived.
All did not proceed smoothly thereafter. The knee was killing him, even if he would not concede as much. The unthinkable happened and he was dropped for the fourth Test at Headingley, a move which backfired spectacularly as England lost inside three days.
There was nothing for it but to bring him back and so the selectors did for the clincher at The Oval. He did not fire with the bat as he had not done for some time and he was anodyne by his standards with the ball, probably because of the pain.
Then on the fourth afternoon, with Australia just beginning to appear as if they might actually threaten a target of 546 to win the match (outrageous of course but Aussies have that kind of effect on Englishmen), Flintoff made his last indelible mark on a cricket match.
Mike Hussey, the Australian left-hander pushed a ball from Harmison at mid on and set off for a single. Flintoff swooped for the ball and threw down the stumps at the striker's end to which Ricky Ponting was running, forlornly as it happened. In a trice the session, the day, the match and the Ashes belonged to England. Flintoff merely went down on one knee.
That was that as it has turned out. Several subsequent medical bulletins all pointed to one destination which was formally reached yesterday. Fred has been flawed as a cricketer and man. He drank too much on occasions and his failure to make the team bus on the morning they were visiting First World War graves before the Ashes last year did not enamour him to team-mates. For Freddie it was, as so often, the morning after the night before.
But he was contrite, as naughty little boys often are and loved by the public more. What lies ahead of him who knows. He has a ready wit and will be as much as anything perhaps a professional celebrity. But he was a great cricketer.
Tributes to Flintoff
"He's had a dramatic effect on world cricket. He helped bring a new audience to the game. He could be inspirational both by what he did on the pitch but also how he was around the lads and he will be missed. The way he played the game; he was the ultimate impact cricketer."
"Flintoff was one of a rare breed of cricketer who could clear the bars at a ground. He would then go and join them afterwards. We are all striving to gain the respect of our peers. Andrew did that."
"Throughout the summer [of the 2005 Ashes] he was the leader of the pack and was able to do almost anything he wanted. His batting, bowling and fielding were in perfect harmony."
"He's been an inspirational character, not just for Lancashire, not just for England, but for children growing up and for his team-mates as well."
"He's been a great figure. As far as someone that has an impact on the way a team plays, then he is right up there."
Ricky Ponting, Australia captain
Ashes to splashes: Flintoff's tumultuous career with England
23 July 1998 Makes Test debut against South Africa at Trent Bridge in an eight-wicket defeat.
7 April 1999 Makes one-day debut against Pakistan in Sharjah in eight-wicket win.
15 March 2002 Scores fIrst Test century against New Zealand in Christchurch.
July 2004 Records best ODI score (123) against West Indies and best Test score (167) against the same opposition later that month.
Aug 2005 Hits record nine sixes in an Ashes Test in the win at Edgbaston.
Sept 2005 Enhances his laddish public image by being photographed the worse for wear after England win an epic Ashes series.
Oct 2005 Named ICC cricketer of the year.
Nov 2005 Career-best Test figures of 8 for 156 against Pakistan in a 22-run defeat in Multan.
Dec 2005 Named BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
March 2006 Captains England for the first time, as stand-in for Michael Vaughan, in draw with India in Nagpur.
Nov 2006-Jan 2007 Shortcomings as captain are laid bare as he leads England to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash defeat.
March 2007 The 'Fredalo' incident. Flintoff is fined, stripped of vice-captaincy and suspended for a World Cup game in the West Indies after a drunken night out – he reportedly had to be rescued from a pedalo at sea.
March 2009 Bought by IPL side Chennai Super Kings for a record £1.1m. Takes two wickets in three games before departing for knee surgery.
April 2009 Equals best ODI figures of 5 for 19 in win over West Indies at St Lucia.
July 2009 Announces retirement from Test cricket. Takes 5 for 92 at Lord's to help England win the First Ashes Test.
Aug 2009 Runs out Ricky Ponting on his final Test appearance at The Oval as he helps England reclaim the Ashes.
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