The men who made the series: Andrew Flintoff
Tuesday 13 September 2005
The verdict can now be delivered on the man who is now Freddie to all and sundry except his family. If Flintoff never does anything else in the game, never bowls another ball, or plays another stroke, or holds another catch he will be recalled for as long as cricket is played. Likewise the team he has played for in epic contest which for eight titanic weeks has held a nation spellbound.
Flintoff's deeds have been monumental, stretching beyond the 402 runs, the 24 wickets and the three catches. The image of him leaning down to console the inconsolable Brett Lee after England had hauled themselves back into the summer by winning the second Test by two runs has come to embody the series. In its way, it has already come to stand for all that sport should stand for.
In the moment of the great triumph Flintoff remembered the smartest, tritest but most fundamental truism: that to win you need somebody to beat. And again on Saturday night, when Australia had established a bridgehead from which they might launch a push for series-levelling victory, Flintoff delivered a straightforward entreaty.
"We have got to give every ounce of energy we have left," he said. "Everything we have left in tanks we have got to leave out on that pitch." He followed it the next morning with another brilliant spell of bowling.
What he could not have foretold that day in front of the pavilion at Old Trafford, what this essentially diffident lad from Preston probably dared not contemplate, was that his life itself would be changed forever. The nature of Flintoff's performances has not only made him part of the national furniture and a shoo-in for every man (never mind sportsman) of the year award going, it has, sadly, elevated him to a status of crazy celebrity which is already bewildering him and which he has already come to loathe.
Flintoff has never sought it. He has always been an extremely obliging interviewee - except in his early days when the attention rather befuddled him. But this is now something else and it may not be easy for him to handle.
He has left the town of his birth - though he is not too far away - but you will never able quite to take Preston out of the lad. Freddie will need the help of his wife Rachael, the woman whom he met at a cricket match two years ago (she was working for the sponsors) and has helped to put him on an even keel. Flintoff was in danger of failing to make the most of his talent, not because he was especially outrageous but because he did not prepare in the fastidious way that modern, top level sport demands.
His friend, former playing colleague and agent, Neil Fairbrother, came first. He borrowed a particularly stern version of the riot act and read it to Flintoff one night at Old Trafford. The gist of the message was that his charge was peeing his talent up the wall. Flintoff listened. He has always been a trifle gauche, possibly because he is just such a nice man, but something in Fairbrother's words made him take notice.
Then along came Rachael. Lovely, bright and ambitious, she was an immediate influence for good on the feckless boy. "Off the pitch my life is perfect," he said. "The family travel around with me. We've got a baby who's great. It's a stark contrast to my life pre-Rachael. It was all over the shop, wasn't it? She's very organised and she tries to organise me. We've come to a happy medium where I've improved and I've dragged her down a little bit to be a bit more laid back. So we've compromised. But I refuse to tidy my bag."
Flintoff's kit bag is a legendary mess. Everything falls out of it when he opens it in the dressing room. Rachael has presumably taken the sensible option to go nowhere near it. And now this. Their closeness was apparent yesterday when he was out in England's second innings. The pain on her face, the feeling for her man, was as clear as in a Jane Austen novel.One tabloid on Sunday produced a spread comparing Rachael with Victoria Beckham. It will have made them wince.
In this series, Flintoff has come to terms with the tricky business being an all-round cricketer. It is one thing to have the talent in both departments, it is another to perform them both well at the same time, in the same match. It was beginning to niggle him.
"It's a big ask to get everything going together," he said at the beginning of the summer. "It's hard to do and it's a bit of everything, physical and mental. I would settle for doing it in the next seven or eight weeks."
In the final, decisive match he exhibited that he had found the key to the chest containing that particular treasure. His commanding 72 in England's first innings got them out of an extremely cavernous hole, and his 5 for 74 in Australia's first innings was not only a significant intervention in a particular match, it was probably one of the greatest spells delivered by an English bowler.
Flintoff is a great cricketer already and he has it in him to become greater. But it is not overstating the point to suggest that he has it in him to be a great man, not in the sense of changing the world, but in being role model and a force for good.
He has kept a sense of perspective. When he was asked if the Ashes represented his biggest challenge he said: "Well, yes after trying to bring up a child." It will never be quiet on the Preston front again.
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