Looking Back with Andrew Flintoff: 'The Ashes was when I found out whether I was any good or not'

In 2005, Andrew Flintoff's Ashes exploits made him a national hero. Angus Fraser talks to the Lancastrian about taking on the Aussies, the paparazzi, having a beer and sharing a dressing room with Joan Collins

Amongst the countless invitations Andrew Flintoff has received since England regained the Ashes was one from the fashion designer Donatella Versace. "She wanted to kit me and the missus out and take us out for dinner," Flintoff recalls, disbelievingly. "Have you seen them clothes that she makes? You've got to have a 28 inch waist to get in 'em. There is no chance of me being kitted out by Donatella Versace and going out for dinner with her."

He grins. "Who is she anyway, and what would I say to her? 'Did you enjoy the Ashes, luv?' The missus weren't too happy though coz she fancied a new frock."

It is hard to imagine Kevin Pietersen, Flintoff's limelight loving team-mate, turning down such an invitation. Indeed, some observers have mischievously suggested that Pietersen spent more time on the red carpet in September and October than he did at the crease in Pakistan in November and December.

Flintoff only accepted one offer during the month break between England's Ashes triumph and a trip to Australia to play for the Rest of the World. It was to present a prize at a television awards night. He only stayed for half an hour but while there he briefly shared a dressing-room with Joan Collins.

"I was putting me tie on, and there was a knock on the door," he says chuckling. "I said 'come in' and in walked Joan Collins. It was bizarre. I don't think she knew who I was, but I thought I'd better leave." If Flintoff gives the impression of being uncomfortable in, and reluctant to enter, the glitzy world of showbiz and celebrity, it is because he is. Despite his heroics during the summer, where he took 24 wickets and scored 402 runs in possibly the greatest-ever Ashes series, Flintoff does not see himself as a superstar. At times he sits down and wonders what all the fuss is about. And neither does he enjoy the extra attention that continues to come his way.

Even in Pakistan, where security made it very difficult for local cricket fans to get close to the England team, Flintoff was reluctant to venture far out of his hotel room for fear of being hassled. Incessant phone calls forced him to disconnect his bedside phone, though I only became aware of this when he failed to return any of the half a dozen messages I had left for him to inquire about an interview.

In desperation I resorted to locating room 586 and knocking on the door. The players were in the middle of a two-day break. Rumour had it that a few members of the team had been to the American Club, a meeting place for Westerners where alcohol was available, so I'd waited until midday before wandering past the armed security guards and down the corridor where the England team were housed.

Pietersen was putting a breakfast tray outside his door as I walked by and I had a brief chat with him before giving Flintoff's door a gentle rap.

"Who is it?" came the slightly agitated groan of a man whose slumber had been interrupted.

"It's Gus," I replied.

"OK, hang on a minute."

Eventually the door opened and there he was with a towel round his waist looking anything but an all-action hero. Flintoff invited me in to his room which looked as though a tornado had hit it. There were clothes, cricket kit, bags lying everywhere. It was a pig-sty.

"Did you have a big one last night?" I asked.

"No, just a couple of quiet beers in the room with Harmy [Stephen Harmison] and Shaggy [Sean Udal]," he replied. "They are long days over here if you get up too early, I'll see you in the coffee shop at 2.15."

Flintoff has never played cricket to grab the limelight. He never will. He is enjoying the rewards success has brought him - he recently bought a £1.5m "gated" property in Cheshire - but you feel he would trade a large part of it in if he could return to the uncomplicated life he once had. A life where he could turn up at a cricket ground, smash a hundred, take five wickets, stop for a pint on the way home and have an evening meal sitting around the kitchen table with his wife, Rachael, and Holly, the couple's 15-month-old daughter.

Flintoff plays cricket because he enjoys it. He loves competing and plays the game how it should be played. On the field he is ruthless with both bat and ball, but he also knows what is right and what is wrong. You never see Flintoff carrying on like a spoilt brat when an umpiring decision goes against him, and English cricket is fortunate to have a man of his calibre fronting the sport.

He enjoys the company of cricketers because, in general, they share the same interests as him. And it is these traits, along with an enviable talent on the field, that turned him into the most popular sportsman in Great Britain, winning him the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Award a fortnight ago.

The limelight is not the only thing Flintoff is uncomfortable with. He does not enjoy talking about himself. When I asked him what his personal highlights were last summer, he started talking about the lap of honour at the Oval and Ashley Giles scoring the winning runs in the fourth Test at Nottingham.

Eventually, after a little prompting, he talks about himself. "It was nice to score a 100 at Trent Bridge," he says, "and taking the wicket of Ponting at Edgbaston was up there. It was a decent over."

A decent over? It was a bloody brilliant over. England were attempting to defend 281 and Australia's openers had made a good start. But in six memorable balls Flintoff removed Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain. Brett Lee, Shane Warne and Michael Kasprowicz made England work unbelievably hard for their victory the following morning but without Flintoff's double strike the ownership of the Ashes would probably still be Australia's.

Yet there was a stage in the summer when Flintoff looked anything but a hero in waiting. Flintoff made his Test debut against South Africa in the summer of 1998 but injury and form had prevented him playing a single Test against Australia. Sixteen years of Ashes failure has made Test series against Australia stressful experiences for Englishmen. As a player you know it is the ultimate test and you realise that if you do not perform against them there will always be doubts about whether you were able to hack it with the best.

In the first Test at Lord's Flintoff scored nought and three with the bat and took 4 for 173 with the ball. England lost by 239 runs: their talisman seemed shot.

"Before it started I was obviously hoping we were going to win the Ashes and that I was going to play a part in it," he says. "But there is a difference between hoping and believing and I did not know quite what to expect when I turned up at Lord's.

"During the build-up to the match I was fine. I was doing the right things and treating it the same as any other Test match. People asked how they thought I would feel on the morning of the Test and I thought I would feel exactly the same as I always did. But I didn't, I was unbelievably nervous. With the ball I was really charged. I see pictures of me when I took a wicket and it looks terrible. I was no better waiting to go in to bat. I wouldn't say I was a nervous wreck but I was pretty close to it.

"I had played 40-odd Test matches and done well against other sides but a lot had been made about eventually playing against Australia. It had become my ultimate challenge and I wasn't enjoying it.

"I look back now and I realise I had put too much pressure on myself. There has been outside pressure over the last two years and I have coped with it pretty well, but I was telling myself that this was it. This was the time when I would find out whether I was any good or not."

Flintoff did not stay for a drink with the opposition when the Test ended on Sunday afternoon. He packed his bags, jumped in his car and drove down to Devon to meet his family. "We stayed at a place called Bovey Castle," he said. "It was in the middle of nowhere and the people weren't interested in cricket, which was good. I spent some time with Rachael and Holly. Chubby [Flintoff's agent] came down on Tuesday and we had dinner. We had a few bottles of wine and chatted about what was going to happen in the next few weeks.

"I was going to get in the nets with Harvey [Neil Fairbrother] and do some work on the bowling machine, and give this bloke Jamie Edwards a whirl. He is not a psychologist but he concentrates on the mental side of things.

"The main thing was he got me talking and made me realise the things I was doing when I played well. There were several things that came out of our chat. One was the expectancy. When I didn't perform at Lord's I felt as though I had let people down. Rightly or wrongly I took it to heart. I felt embarrassed because people had cheered me when I went out to bat and they had expected me to do well. And when I didn't, I felt I had let the crowd, my team-mates and everyone around me down.

"Obviously that is not the case but I did not see it like that at the time. I had gone into my shell and I wasn't talking to the team or anybody. Rachael could see the difference but it was new ground for her as well. She had never seen this side of me either."

And what was the result of all this? "To tee off when I went out to bat at Edgbaston," he said before breaking into loud laughter. "No, the idea was to go out and enjoy it and have no fear of failing. Then at least if I failed I was doing it with a smile on my face and in the fashion I'd like to. At Edgbaston I got off the mark by chipping one off Warne over mid-off for four. It could easily have been caught but I was trying to hit myself back into the runs. Then in the second innings I was batting like a batsman a bit more."

It was at the conclusion of the Edgbaston Test, when England had completed the most dramatic victory imaginable, that Flintoff went over and consoled a distraught Brett Lee before celebrating with his team-mates. It is an image that will forever live in the memory of those who witnessed it. It encapsulated all that is good in sport, and highlighted what a great man Flintoff had become.

Flintoff, unsurprisingly, was named the man of the series, and he was the star of the show as the England team were paraded around central London in an open-top bus.

Flintoff's Ashes celebrations gained front page status in most national newspapers and the images of England's worse-for- wear hero swaying around became the topic of conversation on most breakfast phone-ins.

"I thought I carried it off all right in the end ," he says, before breaking into laughter. "No, they weren't ideal were they? I don't regret it, but I wish they hadn't put the pictures in the paper. I got a bit caught up in the moment."

He laughs again. "I told Rachael, who had gone out for a meal with the girls, that I would see her in the morning and then I went downstairs to have a drink with the people who had helped me get here. There was Harvey, Dave Roberts, Paul Beck and several others. These were the fellas I wanted to have a beer with."

The result of Flintoff's antics - on and off the field - caused a state of "Freddymania" and the paparazzi were soon assembling outside his house in Cheshire. It continued when he travelled to Australia to play for the Rest of the World and there were a couple of incidents when his easy-going nature was tested.

"I had got fed up with it at home as well," he says. "It is fine when the interest in you is about cricket, and when things are being documented and commented on there. You expect that. But when you go home? Naïvely I did not expect there to to be God knows how many cameras outside me house.

"We were moving at the time. There were people outside both houses. There were blokes up ladders and in your garden trying to take pictures. It got me out of doing any lifting but there were times when I wanted to go out there and grab one of them. The missus was good. She just told me to go and sit down.

"But all of a sudden the things you took for granted became hard work. I was followed in cars. People were following the missus and looking in our shopping trolley to see what we were buying. Others, who I'd never met before, came up and talked to you as though they knew you. They knew Holly too. She's a 15-month-old baby for Christ's sake. It was all quite bizarre.

"But then they realised that we don't actually do anything that exciting. There is only so many times they can follow you to Sainsbury's or the paper shop before getting bored."

Shopping in Pakistan was a far less stressful task but Flintoff has refrained from following his team-mates and buying rugs for the new family home.

"Rachael is in charge of decorating," he says happily. "The last time I came here I took rugs back for me mum and dad."

"Did they like them?" I enquired.

"Well, they're not in the house at the moment," he replies. "Anyway I can't afford 'owt right now. The house has cleaned us out, and I've got all I want."

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