He was cricket's man of the year 2005, and a kind sports editor asked me to interview him. Ashes supplement, The Times, July 2005
It’s the day before a one-day international at the Oval, so England practised there this morning. Flintoff is spending his afternoon off not at the hotel where the squad are staying, but in another hotel, a shiny expense-account place near the Tower. He is here to promote the game – the virtual one, as well as the real one – in his capacity as the face on the cover of Cricket 2005. With him in the room, which is not big, are three PR people, two photographers, an agent and a journalist. One star player, seven people mediating in different ways between him and the public. Cricket 2005 indeed.
Flintoff fields the attention without fuss. He exudes good health, which is standard for a sportsman, and an uncalculated charisma, which is not. His eyes are round, unguarded and blue as a cloudless sky. There is none of the defensiveness that can go with fame – the silky flippancy of Gower, the domineering boisterousness of Botham. From three feet away, Flintoff seems the same person that comes across on the telly: genial, outgoing, unaffected. He enjoys his team-mates’ company so much, he drops into the Lancashire dressing-room when he is being rested on Duncan Fletcher’s orders, just to join in the banter.
Cricket is reckoned to reveal character, but with all-rounders, it can disclose two personalities. Flintoff the batsman is a risk-taker and a crowd-pleaser, a direct descendant of the proverbial village blacksmith; craftier now than he was, but still inclined to thump the ball straight to deep mid-off. Flintoff the bowler is a different animal: steady, disciplined, miserly. As an interviewee, he is somewhere between the two. He answers the question, with good humour, but doesn’t waste words. He’s quick, clear, nobody’s fool.
Stuart Law, the Aussie turned Lancastrian, has said that Flintoff has no fear. Is that true? “Well I don’t like the dark,” he says. “Or spiders… But the past two or three years I’ve not really had a fear of failure. I trust what I do.”
Does he get nervous? He reaches for a sportsman’s cliche. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.” Then he thinks for a moment. “It’s not nerves exactly – more a sort of nervous excitement.”
He will never feel that more than this coming Thursday. By a quirk of fate and form and fitness, not one of Flintoff’s 47 Tests has been against Australia. No England player has had to wait anything like so long (WG Grace, the nearest the Victorians got to Flintoff, never played against anyone but Australia). And every single pundit sees him as the central figure, the chief bearer of a nation’s hopes. “If he has a big series with either bat or ball,” Mark Butcher said this week, “England are in with a great shout of regaining the Ashes.”
When I met him, Flintoff had faced the Australians in a handful of one-day games – and managed to be himself. Does it feel different playing the Aussies? “Possibly, yeah. The interest in the Ashes is massive. People have been coming up to us in the street for weeks.”
He says all the players are getting it, but much of that expectation homes in on him. He is the people’s choice, the biggest name in replica shirts, the man who lifts the crowd. You’d think it would colour the way he plays, but he insists not. “I hear the crowd obviously and it’s nice when they’re behind you, but it doesn’t change the way I play.”
Still, he’s carrying a lot of hopes. Doesn’t that put him under pressure? “Not really – I just go out there and play.”
WHEN THE Australians toured England in 2001, Flintoff was nowhere. He had played nine Tests and 23 one-day internationals without establishing himself in either team. In Tests, he had never raised his bat for a fifty or taken three wickets in an innings. Everyone could see that his potential was as big as his physique, but he was overweight, overhyped, probably overpaid and certainly under-performing, a symbol of what was wrong with English sport, and English youth.
Agents and managers tend to be seen as part of the problem, but for Flintoff they were the solution. His management team consists of the former England bastman Neil Fairbrother, who is lurking in the background as we talk in a smart suit, and the golf agent Chubby Chandler. In 2001, they called him in and read the riot act. They told him he was wasting his talent and sat him down to work out what he needed to do to get where he had to be, in the England team. “If I was honest with myself,” Flintoff said later, “I’d been drifting along for some time.”
He rang Duncan Fletcher and asked to be added to the Academy tour of Australia, English cricket’s boot camp. No sooner had he got there than Fletcher and Nasser Hussain realised that they had gone to India with an unbalanced side which would struggle to accommodate two spinners. To balance it, they needed Flintoff to open the bowling. In the event, he couldn’t buy a run, so they may as well have picked a specialist seamer, but his bowling was a revelation, tireless and uncomplaining. Soon afterwards, in New Zealand, the runs duly flowed.
Now, at 27, he is the world’s leading all-rounder, the only current player who is Test class as both a batsman and a bowler. An all-rounder is a hard thing to be and getting harder as the game becomes more jetlagged and relentless. Australia and India don’t produce Test all-rounders at all. South Africa do, but their current pair have settled for being a master batsman who bowls (Jacques Kallis) or a great bowler who bats (Shaun Pollock). Abdul Razzaq is merely handy; Chris Cairns has retired from Tests. Flintoff is top of the tree.
Since Michael Vaughan became captain, Flintoff has been several players in one: a Test batsman averaging 44, a bowler averaging 26, an effortlessly excellent second slip, and an emotional pivot. He is England’s celebrator in chief, a star who is visibly a team player. And he is, or was until Pietersen crashed the party, every supporter’s favourite cricketer, because along with the solid achievement goes phenomenal entertainment value. He has already hit 50 sixes in Tests, twice as many as Graham Gooch. A survey for Wisden Australia found that Flintoff was England’s fastest scorer of all time. In one-dayers, he is the second most frequent six-hitter there has ever been, just behind Shahid Afridi.
His progress as a bowler has been more staccato, with injury always waiting to trip him up. But after starting out as not so much a bowler, more a high-class economy measure, he has evolved into a lethal weapon, capable of high pace and hostility, the man Vaughan turns to when he needs to make things happen. His bowling has taken on some of the dynamism of his batting, and his batting has begun to show the nous of his bowling. On recent form, he is the most complete cricketer since Imran Khan.
If he could face his own bowling, what would happen? “I’m not sure, that’s an interesting one. Probably get meself out. I’ve always regarded myself as a batsman who bowls, but lately it’s been more of an all-rounder. I had a back problem for years and years, which made a difference. I probably think a bit more like a bowler now.”
He makes this sound natural when in fact it was part of a plan. Eighteen months ago, Wisden made him one of their Cricketers of the Year, and he told his interviewer he wanted to move the ball away from the right-hander and take more wickets. Since then his strike rate has plunged from a trundler’s 101 balls per wicket to a world-beating 50. He now offers Vaughan what McGrath and Warne offer Ponting: economy and menace at the same time.
True all-rounders are supposed to have a batting average higher than their bowling average. For Flintoff, currently on 32 with the bat and 33 with the ball, that moment will come in his next good Test. “Is that right? Well about time, I suppose. It feels as if I’ve always been playing catch-up because I started poorly.”
But he makes it clear that averages are not his game. “I’m not that into them, because you can make a hundred in a dead game and average 50 for the series, so they’re not that representative. It’s more about whether you had a good series – did you turn a game?”
HIS PRIME has coincided with starting a family. His first child, Holly, arrived last September, and he married her mum, Rachael Wools, in March. So who gets up in he middle of the night when the baby cries? “She doesn’t!” he says, with a doting-dad glow.
The aspect of the job he likes least is the travelling, “the packing and unpacking, the hotel rooms”. So when he goes away, Rachael and Holly go too. “They come everywhere. In South Africa, I think we were there six weeks and they came along for five and a half of them.” Unprompted, he mentions they won’t be able to do it again this winter, when he is in Pakistan and India. “Not something I’m relishing.”
Flintoff is English cricket’s biggest star at a time when cricket has become a modest little galaxy compared to football. How does he feel when he sees the life the footballers lead? “Relieved. I wouldn’t like it to get any bigger than it is at the moment, to be honest.”
And if he helps win the Ashes, it will be much bigger. The prize he wants most will deprive him of some of the privacy he still enjoys. He smiles, not the big, boyish, just-got-a-wicket grin, but something older and more rueful. “It’s probably something you get used to.”