Looking Back on 2006: Flintoff's year in the fishbowl

Continuing our series of major interviews with the pivotal sporting figures of 2006, Andrew Flintoff reflects on a roller-coaster 12 months that began with him becoming England captain and masterminding their first Test win in India for 20 years but ended with the loss of the Ashes

Forget the poor preparation and selection. Disregard the inability of the bowlers to take 20 wickets in a Test or the batsmen to cope with pressure. England's defeat to Australia in the Ashes was all down to a dodgy coin and Andrew Flintoff's patriotism.

England's attempt to retain the Ashes got off to the worst possible start when Flintoff lost the toss on a hot morning in Brisbane. His mood would not have improved when the first ball of the tour, bowled by his close friend Stephen Harmison, ended up in his hands at second slip. Harmison is not the first England bowler to have allowed the pressure of playing for cricket's most prized possession get to him but at least Michael Slater was able to hit the deliveries bowled by Philip DeFreitas and Darren Gough in the Nineties. Justin Langer, the Australian opener, would have needed a 12-foot bat to strike the ball that Harmison sent down.

I asked Flintoff about the toss when he joined me in my hotel room in Perth. "Aaagghhh, I called heads, didn't I?" said the England captain scratching his head and ruing his decision. "I never call heads but they had a special coin made and they made a big thing about The Queen's head being heads and the Aussie side of it being tails. I always call tails but I couldn't call for something Australian so I went for heads. When it came down as a tail I thought 'No!'."

It is amazing how an apparently minor issue like this can have such a major impact on a sporting event, yet it does in Test cricket. In football or rugby the toss makes very little difference. The sun may be in the defenders' eyes for one half or the wind may be blowing in a certain direction but that is about as far as the disadvantage goes. A huge number of factors change during the course of a five-day Test so the wrong call or, in Nasser Hussain's case at the same venue four years earlier, the wrong decision can have a profound effect on a game.

On this occasion Flintoff's pride exposed a nervous and underprepared Harmison to a delivery that will become part of Ashes folklore.

"Fortunately I always watch the ball," said Flintoff, with a smile on his face. "I was hoping it would come to me at second slip but off the edge of Justin Langer's bat. Everyone has made a big deal of the first ball because in the past Michael Slater has hit boundaries but it was not all down to that. As much as you want to start well, a lot more took place after that. Harmy should not take the blame."

Much has happened to Flintoff since I last interviewed him 12 months ago. It was in a coffee shop at the Lahore Intercontinental Hotel in Pakistan. Back then he seemed bulletproof. And, after inspiring England to their first Ashes success in 16 years and being voted the BBC Sport's Personality of the Year, he probably was.

When somebody you know pretty well suddenly goes through the life-transforming experiences that Flintoff has, you tend to analyse them closely to see if they have changed. Selfishly, you don't want them to because you enjoyed them just the way they were. And as I chatted with him I couldn't help but think about the chaotic fishbowl world he now lives in.

Flintoff constantly states that he is, and wishes to remain, a simple lad from Preston, who enjoys nothing more than visiting his local pub and having a few pints with a couple of mates. But when you hear about the helicopter rides here, there and everywhere, and see the tattoos specially designed by David Beckham's tattooist, you begin to wonder. But as he sat massively in the armchair in front of me he was actually the same Andrew Flintoff that I had come to love, only he now seemed slightly more vulnerable.

Captaining the England cricket team is a huge job and losing the Ashes is not something Flintoff would take lightly. The 29-year-old may have more money than he could ever have dreamt of and be set up for life, but he still cares deeply about his cricket. And when he said that he was "proud to be England captain and proud to represent his country" after the team's defeat in Perth he meant it.

I asked him to compare his emotions now with those of a year ago, and how he felt the last 12 months had gone. "There is a stark contrast," he admitted ruefully. "The year started off well. We went to India in February and I was offered the captaincy because Vaughny [Michael Vaughan] wasn't fit and Marcus [Trescothick] was having problems. I thought the trip to India was great. I enjoyed it and it went well.

"After 2005 I was really looking to kick on, to keep on improving. I was comfortable with my bowling but I was looking for consistency with the bat. I found it for a period against Australia, Pakistan and then India. A couple more hundreds would not have gone amiss but I was scoring all right. I hit four fifties on the bounce without scoring a hundred so that was an area I felt I could improve upon.

"Winning the Ashes the year before was obviously a huge high but the win in Mumbai was right up there with it. England hadn't won a Test in India for 20 years and, against everyone's predictions, we came back and drew the series. It was my first win as captain, too, and we were playing against a very good Indian team with a bunch of young lads.

"But things fell away after that. We played Sri Lanka at Lord's, which was a bizarre game. They batted for three days, we dropped a shedload of catches and I took quite a bit of criticism. We played well at Edgbaston and then turned up at Trent Bridge for the third Test and found a pitch that was more like one you'd find in Colombo than Nottingham. To draw the series against them was disappointing. [But] Murali was extremely good and there was little we could do."

After the win at Edgbaston few doubted that Flintoff was the right man to lead England in the absence of Vaughan. He may not have been as innovative and adept as England's Ashes-winning captain but he was tactically sound, as he has been in Australia. Flintoff overcame these minor shortcomings by leading from the front. His selfless commitment on the field and the ability to bowl long spells when his team needed it most set the right example and inspired his troops.

Yet all this changed when the ankle problem that required surgery in early 2005 resurfaced. Flintoff is not a natural leader. He does not particularly enjoy being the centre of attention and would feel uncomfortable standing up in front of his team-mates to make a speech. It could be seen in Perth as the third Test drifted away from England on the third day. At each drinks breaks the team were in desperate need of someone getting them together to give a little chat. Yet Flintoff stood on the periphery, sucking on a drink in his own little world. With his ankle restricting his bowling, Flintoff was unable to change the course of the match and the fate of the Ashes.

"I always wanted to captain the teams I played in," Flintoff said. "Playing for England was always something I dreamt of and, of course, you then think of the captaincy. It was something I never thought I would be offered, especially after the way I started my career. But when it came along I was very keen to have a go. It came around in slightly different circumstances to what I imagined but it was always something I wanted to have a shot at, to give a try.

"It has its ups and downs, but I am enjoying it. The Ashes have been hard but you take the accolades when they come along. But you have to accept the criticism, too. There is more to it than I initially thought, particularly off the pitch. It is one thing being scrutinised for playing a bad shot as a batsman or bowling a bad spell as a bowler, but the captaincy adds an extra dimension. The criticism is slightly harder to take. The first time I read some of the things that were written at the start of last summer it took me by surprise. It shocked me a little. But I am doing it as well as I can and I am comfortable with what I am doing. If it does not come off it is not through a lack of effort. I am now quite philosophical about it all."

I ask whether he has been able to cope with the extra responsibility and if it is the reason why his batting has fallen away. "People keep finding excuses for me when I'm not performing," he says. "People keep saying it is all too much for me and it is affecting my batting. But when I am out in the middle and there is a bloke running in and bowling at me at 150kph, and another spinning it both ways, there is only one thing I am concentrating on and that is hitting the ball. I do not find it a burden at all, I quite enjoy the extra responsibility. It brought the best out of me in India. Against Sri Lanka I was found out a bit by Murali, but that has happened to more than a few people in the game."

Yet regarding his life away from cricket, there is a prevalent idea that his off-field activities may start to influence what he does on the field. "It is something that me, Harvey and Chubby [Neil Fairbrother and Chubby Chandler, Flintoff's agents] are conscious of. After my family the cricket is the most important thing in my life. Everything else is a by-product of how well I do on the field so I am doing all I can to get that right. A lot of people have gone on about my benefit year and all the functions I go to, but in my benefit year I have only had six or seven functions, which is nothing major. And all I have done at those is turn up. I have done more for other people, other beneficiaries than myself."

In 2005, Flintoff was the iconic figure of British sport but, 12 months later, his career seems to be reaching a pivotal moment. At 29, he should have several good years left in him but much depends on whether his left ankle can cope with the demands of playing non-stop cricket. The ongoing problem has undermined his leadership in Australia and it is in danger of threatening his career. If Flintoff cannot bowl, it is debatable whether he would get in England's Test side.

"I'd be lying if I said my ankle wasn't worrying me," he said while feeling the three-inch scar on the inside of his left ankle, to which he had two further injections just before Christmas. "Most bowlers have a weakness somewhere. You had your hip and I think my ankle is mine. In this Test series I have had quite a bit of discomfort. I naïvely thought that it was going to be fine but it probably won't be.

"Every other part of my body has been great and I am bowling as well as ever but my ankle has played up a couple of times. I think I could have the operation I had again to clear the ankle out but I don't want to be going under the knife every year to 18 months.

"The lowest point of 2005 was when I came back in the middle of the season after the four or five weeks rehab and training. I played in a couple of Twenty20 games for Lancashire and then went to Kent thinking I was about to captain England in front of my home crowd at the Old Trafford Test against Pakistan.

"But my ankle gave way again. It bloody hurts. When it's sore I get a sharp stabbing pain every time I put my foot down. It is like a bolt being driven through the back of my ankle. Bowling brings it on but then I start to struggle around in the field and it becomes stiff when I bat."

And as for 2007? "The Ashes have gone but I want to perform well in the final two Tests and in the World Cup," he says. "I have played in two World Cups and England have not got through to the second round, so I am keen to do well in that. I want to stay fit and keep playing. For how long, I'm not quite sure. I think it will be dictated by my body as opposed to not wanting to play. I enjoy playing cricket but, with the scheduling and everything, there is a lot being played and it takes its toll, particularly for bowlers. I think bowlers' careers are going to get shorter. I can't see myself doing a Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne and playing till I'm 36 or 37."

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