Sports Personality of the Year: 'Well done, my friend, you earned it'

On day Flintoff is due to win the big prize, a special tribute from his best mate
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The Independent Online

Stephen Harmison knows the sports personality of the year so well that he often refers to him by his real name. To the world, Andrew Flintoff has long been Freddie, fearless warrior, conqueror-in-chief of Australia, cricketer supreme.

But there was a life before Freddie was born, sometime in the late Nineties, and part of him now remains forever Andrew. To his wife, his mum, his dad, his brother, his friends from Preston and to men like Harmison.

Fred and Harmy have been together in Pakistan these past six weeks. Where one has been, the other has never been far behind, not quite conjoined but never disjointed. They have kept each other company and they have kept each other going. Such is their proximity that they are named after legendary double acts, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Pinky and Perky. But they are nobody's fools, nobody's puppets.

Harmison, however, insisted that he will not be up at 3am in Lahore (10pm tonight in London) when, for his epic deeds in the Ashes, Flintoff should become the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, still the only award truly worth having outside the playing arena.

"He deserves it big time," said Harmison. "Nobody has captured the hearts in England as he did throughout the Ashes. I thought we all deserved the plaudits that came our way because it was a massive effort, but somebody always stands out. He was big enough and bold enough to stand out for everybody."

Their friendship began when Flintoff was the captain of the England Under-19 team - to Pakistan, as it happens - nine years ago. It was the first time that Harmison's oft-chronicled homesickness manifested itself. Flintoff was sensitive to it, understood it, and Harmison left the tour early. But there was much more than cricket to their immediate connection.

"We bounce off each other well," Harmison said. "We're from a similar sort of background. He has a lot of time for my family and I have a hell of a lot of time for his as well. With the upbring-ings we have had, not everything was given to us on a plate.

"His dad, Colin, is exactly the same as my dad, Jimmy. As much as he wants him to do well, he wants him to work things out for himself. It was a big thing with my dad. If you do that, you will get on better in life. I imagine Colin has done that. Fred has not been an angel throughout his career and nor have I. He has had his ups and downs, his time at rock bottom, and I am sure his dad has been there standing by him all the way but lets him work it out for himself. I think he has done a good job."

Flintoff was listening to this eulogy. There is a mutual dependence on each other, which is heightened on tour. It would be a triumvirate, as it was in South Africa last winter, but Robert Key, the third member, is not in the England squad at present.

Like all close couples, they bicker. New boy Shaun Udal has been embraced by the pair on this tour and, as Harmison said, "after the first three weeks he must have thought we hated each other". But woe betide anybody who criticises the other without invitation.

Harmison's troubles with homesickness have been discussed often, not least by the candid fast bowler himself, but Fred, a naturally devoted husband and father, has found the trek round Pakistan tough.

"A few of the lads, not just Andrew, realise what it means to have a family and going away," said Harmison, referring to the growing number of new fathers in England's side. "Before, it was Harmy's problem."

They are both northern lads, both from solid, working-class backgrounds where the family remains overwhelmingly impor-tant, a world which has still not disappeared. Both are aware of the talent they have, neither has been changed by possessing it. There is more side to a perfect sphere.

"I would say we're streetwise, survivors," said Harmison. "When it comes to the crunch all sportsmen are judged on the big games, the big occasions. I know for a fact that eight or nine times out of 10, when it really counts and matters, he tends to stand up and prove to everybody how good he is and what he has been striving for. The Ashes just showed that."

For Harmison, the key piece of the action in a series that became legendary as it was being enacted belonged to Flintoff. It was not his noble gesture to the valiant Australian Brett Lee at the end of the Edgbaston Test when England won by two runs, it was not his timely hundred at Trent Bridge or his relentless bowling spell at The Oval. It was one over at Edgbaston, the second ball of which bowled Justin Langer, the last of which, after a series of searching balls, took Ricky Ponting's edge.

"The way we bowled first innings at Lord's had set the precedent, told them we weren't here to make up the numbers, but that over at Edgbaston swung it towards us. Perhaps, if we're honest, the biggest moment of the series was when Glenn McGrath stood on the ball, but with that over they knew it was the turning point. That was the biggest moment from Fred in the series."

But not the only one, and tonight that is why Andrew Flintoff, our Fred, will be honoured by the nation. Without Harmy by his side for once.