Stephen Brenkley: Flintoff the great

As 'our Fred' announces his retirement from Test cricket, it's time to review his enduring influence

During a benefit dinner in the Long Room at Lord's the other night, Andrew Flintoff had them eating out of his hand. Here was a man of the people in his element.

He was quick-witted, engaging and warm. He can entertain and amuse princes and paupers. It is the kind of popularity that money cannot buy, it is given to few and it will endure for as long as he lives. It is forged mainly from his deeds of derring-do in 2005 but it goes beyond that.

Flintoff's way of playing the game and his innate understanding of its eternal verities transcends boundaries of class and creed. One of the most iconic of all sporting images, of all human images, is of Flintoff bending a gracious knee to console the Australian, Brett Lee, who was on his knees, immediately after the end of the Second Test at Edgbaston in 2005.

That photograph elevated Flintoff from accomplished sportsmen to compassionate man, one who understood naturally that it is important to win but to do so you always need somebody to beat. His life since the Ashes were regained has become a soap opera of injuries and escapades in which he has always somehow managed to remain the hero.

After the other players had left Lord's the other night, Flintoff stayed around for a bit longer. He loved it and they loved him. The nickname, given him years ago when he was a kid who had just joined the Lancashire staff because his surname put them in mind of Fred Flintstone, has fitted him perfectly. In an intangible way it has undoubtedly aided his progress to man of the people status. Our Fred has a more resonant ring to it than our Andy.

The announcement of his retirement from Test cricket yesterday was sad, hardly unexpected and untimely in almost every sense. He had wished to do it through his oldest journalist pal, Myles Hodgson of the Press Association his long-time collaborator on many books past and probably future - and the only reporter of whom he is genuinely fond, understandably thinking the rest of us to be a bunch of polecats.

In the event he was upstaged by a report in yesterday's Sun, the paper for whom he wrote a column for many years without much enthusiasm. He might well have been let down by unwary words by people close to him.

Fred, dare we say our Fred, has fought a gallant and often lone battle against the injuries which have ravaged his body since the Ashes were won four years ago. Sometimes it has been painful to watch him play in yet another game for which he was patently not fit and then go off for another operation and another bout of intensive rehabilitation.

Ultimately, he decided that everything had to be aimed towards one last tilt at the Aussies. Each step on the treadmill, each lift of weight was done with the Ashes in mind. He had recovered from ankle surgery only to be afflicted by a hip complaint. Then the knee went and it is the knee, swollen again last week and the target of three recent cortisone injections, which finally did for him.

Flintoff recognised that he could no longer go on. But he was probably mistaken in announcing it publicly so close to the crucial Lord's Test in which his participation remains slightly doubtful. All the attention was on him yesterday when it should, more legitimately, have been on a team who had so improbably managed a draw in the First npower Test in Cardiff last Sunday.

It was a huge distraction and Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, was not playing games, or heaven forfend, indulging in gamesmanship when he averred that it would be a distraction for the rest of the series. This Ashes series will now take on the guise of Freddie Flintoff's Farewell which is not ideal considering the enormous task with which the team are already faced.

Ridiculous though it might seem, there will always be an element of what might have been to the Flintoff career. He has played 76 Test matches, scored 3708 runs with a batting average of 31.69 and taken 219 wickets at 32.52, neither figure quite reflecting his prowess and meaning to the teams in which he played.

But there have been only five centuries when there might have been easily double that, only two instances of five wickets in an innings when there should have been maybe ten. Yet his influence on England and the balance he brought to the teams will last for a considerably long time.

It is true that they have often won without him. Since the defeat of Australia in 2005 England have played 23 matches with him and won three and 25 without him and won 12. But they have been understandably desperate to field him in this series. Flintoff was a player who always added up to more than the sum of his parts and his parts were very considerable indeed.