An old-fashioned kind of hero
looks as if he's stepped out of a cartoon strip. Everything about him suggests a heightened reality. It's not just his size and bulk - 6ft 5in, 16 and a half stone, broad as a jumbo - there is the supernatural strength with which he hits the ball, the primeval way he celebrates taking a wicket (arms lofted, crotch pushed out, tongue oscillating) and the nickname (Fred, after another cartoon character - Fred Flintstone). And, of course, there's his unfeasible capacity for drink.
In mid-September, England clinched the Ashes and he was named man of the series. Then came the victory celebrations. Again, Flintoff was the star. He just kept going - through the evening, and the night, and the next day's victory parade, until finally, 32 hours into the party, he fell asleep on the coach. Every minute of his binge was gleefully reported:
6.30pm: Victory champagne, and a couple of beers with Steve Harmison, followed by the night at the hotel bar in which he announces, "I'm ugly, I'm overweight, but I'm happy. I'd never make a decent celebrity", and revels in being granted the freedom of his home town, Preston - "It means I can drive a flock of sheep through the town centre, drink for free in no less than 64 pubs and get a lift home with the police when I become inebriated. What more could you want?"
6.30am: Gin and tonic and a vodka and cranberry juice to freshen up
8.30am: Champagne reception at the hotel (Flintoff is the only team member to make it) where former England skipper Mike Gatting asks him if he's eaten - "Yes," he replies, "a cigar!"
8.45am: Ordered by his agent-manager Neil Fairbrother to shower because he stank
9.45am: More beer
10.30am: More champagne, straight from the bottle, on the open-top bus at the victory parade to Trafalgar Square - that's when he tells another former England captain, David Gower, "To be honest with you, David, I'm struggling. I've not been to bed yet and the eyes behind these glasses tell a thousand stories. The emotional journey we have been through - it's just fantastic and we are enjoying it"
1.30pm: At Downing Street, swinging on little Leo's swing, asks for beer when an aide offers sparkling water and soft drinks (by now his eyes are pink and glazed - he later denies that he threw up at the PM's pad)
3pm: At Lords - champagne all round
6pm: Toasting the sponsor, Vodafone, with more champagne before heading off for the victory dinner. At 8pm, captain Michael Vaughan says "My next biggest challenge is to survive another night with Freddie."
If Flintoff is a cartoon hero, he's the old-fashioned kind. Gentleman Fred. Even when ridiculously drunk - and he was ridiculously drunk - there is something of the gentleman about him. Anybody else would have been condemned as reckless and dissolute. Somehow, Flintoff got away with it. There was an innocence about it. Good humoured throughout, he continued to praise the feats of Gilesy and Hoggy and Jonesy rather than big himself up and, like a good family man, he had stayed drinking at the hotel bar through the night, rather than go clubbing. Eventually, Flintoff nodded off on the way back to the hotel after dinner. That was when his team-mate Steve Harmison wrote "Twat" on his forehead and inked his face with a 'tache, goatee and specs. When Flintoff finally staggered off the bus, he'd no idea what had happened to him.
We are due to meet the following day. The newspapers are full of him. Both the Sun and the Mirror have "Off His Fred" as their splash - in the accompanying pictures, he doesn't seem to know what planet he's on. I don't expect him to turn up.
It's mid-September, and the Oval cricket ground in south London feels like a ghost town. Empty, silent. Outside, a neon sign flashes its congratulations to the England team. A member of the groundstaff walks by and nods a smile. The few people in the ground all seem to be grinning to themselves. "Fred's just around the corner having photos taken," says the woman at reception.
Flintoff greets me with a great big Fred of a smile. His face is huge. He is huge. Even bigger than you expect. His eyes are bright and alert and totally unpink. He doesn't even smell of drink. I ask if he's seen the papers.
"It was a bit harsh, wasn't it?" he says sheepishly.
How's he feeling?
"Not too bad, now."
Is he sober yet?
"Oh yeah. I had 12 hours' sleep last night."
He is still amazed by the crowds at Trafalgar Square. He says he was worried that only two or three people would turn up. "Driving through the streets probably exceeded anything I thought could have happened through cricket, to be honest. It was like the rugby world cup!" He says it with awe.
He talks about the great feeling - for the players, the fans, the country - and says he knows that winning the Ashes has had an impact on the national mood, even if he's not quite sure just yet why or how. What has it done for him?
"At the minute, it's given me a hangover ... " He pauses. "But to be honest, I think with the emotion of winning the Ashes, it would be impossible to feel bad at the moment."
Flintoff was always a big lad for whom big things were expected. He was six when he made his first appearance on a cricket field for Dutton Forshaw under-14s. At nine, he played for Lancashire Schools under-11s. The next year he played alongside Phil Neville (then the team's star, now an international footballer) and they lost only one match. By 14, Flintoff was opening the batting for the senior side at St Anne's CC in Lytham and playing for Lancashire under-15s. The dark roof at St Anne's CC is pockmarked with lighter tiles replacing the ones he smashed - a reminder of the myriad sixes he hit in his three years opening the batting.
Now 27, Flintoff has often been portrayed as a rustic with huge forearms and little in the way of cerebral matter. In fact, he passed nine GCSEs, played chess for his county (his brother represented England) and his mother hoped he would go to university. But at 15 he discovered he could make a living from cricket and A-levels seemed pointless, so he left school a year later.
Gary Yates, the Lancashire spin bowler, first came across him when Flintoff was 15 and playing for an under-19 team against the county second 11. "I remember him hitting me for four in my second over, straight back past me, and with force." Flintoff had started off as a fast bowler who could bat a bit. He was even built like a traditional fast bowler - tall, broad and skinny. Neil Fairbrother, who played with him for seven years at Lancashire and is now his agent-manager, remembers a drainpipe of a man. "He was teetotal then. Hadn't touched alcohol in his life." But by the time he was a regular in the Lancashire second team, back problems were impeding his progress. He trundled in at barely middle pace or didn't bowl at all.
Those who knew him as a young man talk about his strength and timing. They also talk about his lack of discipline - on and off the pitch. John Stanworth, who captained Flintoff in the second team and nicknamed him Fred, says, "His decision-making was naive. He'd been used to humbling attacks in schoolboy cricket. The transition from precocious talent to professional cricketer was a big challenge for him. I wasn't sure he'd make it. It took him time to adjust to every new level."
At 17, Flintoff made his debut for Lancashire's first team, and before long he was hailed as the new Ian Botham. But he flattered to deceive, promising much and delivering relatively little. Nevertheless, such a talent was hard to resist for the England selectors. They called the 20-year-old into the team in 1998 - far too early. He invariably disappointed. He would thwack a ball to the boundary or into the crowd and then get himself out. His bowling was workaday. It wasn't so much that he lost his form, it was that he never quite found it.
Flintoff was also beginning to balloon. He had discovered pubs and curries and nights out with the lads. He was becoming more famous for his social stamina and prodigious drinking ability than for his cricket. When Lancashire team-mates came into work looking rough and hungover, the assumption was that they had spent the night being "Freddied".
Last year, when I first met Flintoff, by now trim, fit and England's outstanding player, he described a typical night out in the old days. "It would probably start in the afternoon. About 2pm." And the curry? "I used to love curry. Even if I wasn't going out I'd have curry for tea or something." How much drink would he put away on a classic night out? "I don't know. I don't know. I'd hate to say, to be honest." Flintoff often starts or finishes sentences with "to be honest".
Not surprisingly, cricket supporters started to ridicule the bloated, 19-stone Flintoff (he's now two and a half stone lighter). They called him the Honey Monster. England picked him, dropped him, picked him, and then just left him out. He didn't have to ask why - his form was shocking. He seemed incapable of building an innings. He says he went out to bat expecting to be out within a few balls. For all his big-hitting bluster, there was a vulnerability and, though he might not have recognised it, a self-destructive quality. He was 22 and he looked as if he was about to eat and drink himself into cricketing obscurity.
That was when his true friends came to his rescue. "I was getting 30 or 40 every week, but I just couldn't get past that, and I got a rollocking from Bob Simpson in the office that made me look at myself."
Simpson, the former Australian captain, was Lancashire's coach at the time. What did he say? Flintoff looks embarrassed again, and flushes. "He called me a cunt ... 'Freddie, you're a cunt'. He was talking about the way I was playing, I just sat there and listened. At the end of the season I got hauled in by Neil Fairbrother and Chubby Chandler [Fairbrother works for Chandler's agency, ISM] and they gave me a few home truths. They said I was wasting my talent, that I was lucky to be playing for Lancashire, let alone thinking of England." Did he have a sense that he was throwing it all away? "I must have done. I'm not stupid, but I just needed it coming from someone else."
"He calls it a bollocking, but I'd call it a discussion," Chandler says. "Look, he wasn't going anywhere. It was plain to see his talent was being wasted, and he wasn't enjoying it. I put it to him how hard some of the golfers I work with have to work to get to the top. That's how we reached the conclusion he should go to the Academy. Actually, we made him get on the phone there and then."
Chandler speculates why he was out of sorts. The England dressing room had been an unhappy place, he says. "His shyness didn't help. He's not comfortable with celebrity status. The only place he's comfortable with it is right in the middle of the cricket ground."
It's not that Flintoff was plagued by demons, but his character is more contradictory than he likes to let on. He has a capacity for both extreme discipline (as he has shown recently) and extreme indiscipline. While he often appears to be the life and soul of the party, he is also a private man. His physical presence is misleading - it demands space and attention, but there seems to be an ordinary man trying to break out of the superman carapace and retire to a quiet corner of the pub. Gary Yates thinks that in the past he might have drunk more than he should have because he didn't like the attention he inevitably drew and found it easier to cope after he'd had a few.
It's funny that it was an Australian, Simpson, who brought Flintoff up sharp and helped set him on a new path. I phone Simpson in Australia and thank him for helping us win the Ashes.
"I wouldn't use that word," he says with great certainty. Pause. "I doubt if I called him that," he says less certainly. "I might have called him a lazy B. Look, he was 22 years old, enjoying life, staying up too late, not working hard enough ... That's what annoys me more than anything from a coaching point of view - when people waste talent. The most gifted players are often the hardest to coach, and Freddie was very much in that category. Naturally gifted players are often lazy because they've never had to work hard." He talks about the hours they subsequently spent in the nets working on his forward defensives and square cuts.
Simpson says Flintoff was "pretty cuddly" at that time but he thinks the size thing has been overemphasised.
"He was a huge man, but he was no beast ... he moved beautifully."
He believes that pretty much everybody handled Flintoff poorly in the early days. He makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for the England selectors.
"They were desperate and firing bullets all over the place, and he got more criticism than he should have. Just after they had dropped Freddie and Schofield [fellow Lancashire bowler Chris Schofield], we were at Leicester and one of the selectors was there - he's still a selector, actually - and he didn't speak to them. When you've got charge of people, you have to be honest with them, but he refused to talk to either of them after dropping them."
Simpson thinks that it would have helped Flintoff most in the bad old days if he'd been given responsibility. "In my second year I recommended him as county captain. The committee almost had a fit. They were too shortsighted to see it in Freddie - even then, he was a leader in the dressing room."
What is he like as a man?
"Very gentle. A dog man, like me. He's got two boxers - Fred and Arnold. He's larger than life in the dressing room - just a big kid in some ways." The sort, Simpson says, who'd do anything for a friend.
When I was waiting for Flintoff last year (he is as notorious for his bad time-keeping as he is for losing mobile phones), Fairbrother told me that he had recently received a phone call from a Freddie fan, wanting to thank him.
"He said, 'I was at the Oval on Saturday [the final test against the West Indies] with my wife Karen, and she has MS and is in a wheelchair. At the other end of the ground the lads came out to practise and six or seven of them went over to her. They were all fantastic, had a picture taken with her and a chat.' Then at the end of the game Fred was man of the series and the bloke said, 'We were watching Fred and he was looking for somebody, and then he saw us, and he came running over, and he leaned down to Karen and said, 'Karen, I'd like you to have my man of the series champagne.' The bloke was in tears at the end of the phone telling me, and he said he couldn't believe he could come back eight hours later, having been out on the field all day, and remember her name. I mean that is an awesome story. I told my missus, and she had bloody tears starting in her eyes, too."
When I repeated the story to Flintoff, he made it sound much less heroic.
"Erm, I was just walking round the ground, and had a bottle of champagne, and it was going to get aimlessly sprayed at someone, and I thought, well, you'll probably put it to better use than pouring it on Steve Harmison's head."
That's not true, I said to Flintoff - the man said you went looking for them.
"Well, we saw where they were, and I just ran over and gave it to her," he conceded.
That was the series when he smashed a six straight to his father Colin in the crowd, who failed to catch it - another story the media loved.
"It was freakish how I hit it. I thought he was going to come over the balcony at one point. Some of the lads bumped into him on the way out of the ground and gave him some stick."
The Flintoffs are a close family. Andrew grew up in Preston with his mother Susan, father Colin, a plumber and maintenance man who worked at Aerospace, and elder brother Chris, who taught in Japan for five years, and plays cricket for a local league club. "He holds the league record for the highest score," Flintoff says. "A double hundred."
Colin, who is in his late 50s, still plays occasionally for the local team - they call him up on a Friday night when they're caught short. "He'll talk me through the game and invariably he's taken a one-handed diving catch. Then to drop that catch at the Oval was great!" He calls his dad a "big, shy man" - not unlike himself, then.
It was against the West Indies last year that Flintoff really convinced us he had turned things around, but he'd been rebuilding his career for a good two years by then. After his rollockings from Simpson and Fairbrother in 2001, he set down to work. England manager Duncan Fletcher agreed that he could join the Academy (where England hopefuls are trained in cricket and life skills) in Australia in 2001. In effect, he was pleading with Fletcher for a fresh start. Flintoff says it's as if he has had two different cricketing lives - the disastrous, aborted one and the one he is currently enjoying. "I don't want to be back in those dark times again. So experiencing that makes this all the sweeter."
After the Academy, he was picked for the England squad to tour India in 2001. "I think I scored 25 runs in five tests, but at least I was contributing with the ball. That was some consolation." His back was fine after eight years' trouble, and at last he was bowling like a genuine paceman. He went on with England to New Zealand, where he started to score runs.
Ever since, his batting average has been rising and his bowling average falling (a good sign; it means it costs him fewer runs for every wicket taken). While Ian Botham's brilliant batting averages in his early career (admittedly against moderate opposition, many of the best players having defected to Kerry Packer's lucrative cricket circus) gradually fell over the years, Flintoff's have gradually improved. Even so, he's still making up for his dreadful start. "If I play till I'm 60, I might average 45 with the bat," he says.
All in all, 2004 was a great year for Flintoff. Michael Vaughan suggested he was already the best cricketer in the world. When I put this to Flintoff at the end of the summer of 2004, he belly-laughed and said no way. He suggested Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman and spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, a colleague at Lancashire, the top bowler. He talked about his cricketing heroes.
"Viv! Viv Richards, for obvious reasons - he went out to bat without a helmet. Took the world on in a cap, didn't he? And obviously Botham, being an all-rounder." Flintoff stressed that he couldn't begin to be bracketed with such players - still had so much to prove.
By the time the series arrived this summer, Flintoff was already being hailed as the saviour - the man who would win the Ashes for England. Then came the first test. England were hammered, Flintoff scored 0 and 3 with the bat.
"Before the Lords test match, I'd built up so much in my head, and I felt the pressure. There was a lot of hype about it, a lot of hype about me not having played in an Ashes test, how big this was to everyone, and I put so much pressure on myself that I forgot to do what I do. I like to be relaxed when I play cricket, but at Lords I wasn't. I was wound up, I was uptight, I wasn't me."
After the match he saw Jamie Edwards, a man who helps him with the psychological aspect of the game.
"He's a Manchester lad, about 5ft 5in, and he played basketball. He works on the mind side. He doesn't call himself a psychologist, but we sit there and think and prepare in the right way. I knew I wasn't in the greatest form, and I thought I've got a way of getting out of that here; I'm going to hit my way into form. It's an innings I've not played for a while." Indeed, the first innings he played in the second test was the kind of innings he had spent years disciplining himself not to play. But it worked - 67 runs in 62 balls set the mood and tempo for England's victory at Edgbaston.
The conclusion to the Edgbaston match provided the great sporting image of the summer. England had just scraped home by two runs - the second closest match in 128 years of test match cricket. Brett Lee (primarily a bowler) had batted for 99 minutes, scored 43 undefeated runs, and been assaulted by a battery of England's finest fast bowlers. Flintoff in particular had treated him as human target practice, smacking him on the elbow and the hand with ferocious deliveries. Lee had been doubled up in agony, but still he kept going. On the cusp of victory, Michael Kasprowitz, the number 11, was caught and Lee had run out of partners. He sank to his knees, battered, bruised and in despair. Flintoff, man of the match with a bagful of wickets and two vicious half-centuries, broke away from the victory huddle, ran over, bent down and put one hand on Lee's arm and the other on his shoulder. At the moment of triumph, his instinct was not to punch the air, but to comfort his defeated rival, his fellow gladiator. Even though it was on television, watched by millions, it seemed private. It said so much about the summer and cricket and, most of all, Flintoff.
It also brought out the best in us. The public loved the optimism, the sheer human goodness, of that moment. Even the hard-nosed press responded, reprinting the picture time and again, and proving that soul can be just as appealing as cellulite and schadenfreude.
The only time Flintoff looked like losing his cool this summer was when Channel 4 commentator Mark Nicholas interrogated him about the form of wicket keeper Geraint Jones and suggested that some in the dressing room had questioned his competence. "Not in our dressing room, they don't," he replied belligerently.
In the end, Flintoff won man of the series, was twice voted man of the match, scored 402 runs and took 24 wickets. No sooner had the Ashes ended than cricket buffs took out their calculators and went to war over whether Botham or Flintoff was England's greatest all-rounder. While Botham took more wickets in his annus mirabilis against Australia in 1981, Frank Keating in this newspaper pointed out that he played one more test, and against weaker opposition, and concluded that ultimately Flintoff's statistics were the more impressive.
Whereas players such as Geoffrey Boycott defined themselves by their averages (famously running out batting partners if it meant saving his own wicket), Flintoff insists that he doesn't care much about them - that often they don't give the true picture, anyway.
"Averages can be misleading - you score runs in the second innings of a dead game or you score runs when you get beat." Much more important is how many times you influence a game, he says.
He'd rather talk about his family and his mates and his favourite things, so we do. Favourite drink: Guinness and black ("I get a bit of stick for the blackcurrant"). Favourite Manchester band: Stone Roses. Favourite Lancashire dish: hotpot. Song he listened to most through the Ashes: Elton John's Rocket Man. Favourite book: Filth, by Irvine Welsh ("For a book to make you laugh out loud, it must be pretty special").
Who is his best mate in the England team? "Harmison," he says instantly. "Yeah, we get on well, me and Harmy. Strange relationship - we just rip the piss out of each other all day, every day, but we like it." What does he rip the piss out of you about? "My weight." What does he call you? "Well, you can imagine what he calls me." No, I say, you'll have to tell me. "Well, it's 'fat' and then some four-letter word."
What does he call Harmison? "Well, I have a go because he's got a couple of teeth missing. We've been mates for the best part of nine years."
Who is his best friend in the Australian team? "I've got a few. I've always wanted to play against Shane [Warne], and having done so it was not a letdown because he's a great cricketer and a great man as well. He sent me a text after I got 100."
Was it a dirty text? "No. Hahahaa! He's just a really good fella. So is Brett Lee. It was a special series between the two best sides in the world slugging it out on the pitch, but probably played in the best spirit ever. Although it was competitive and there was the odd thing said, there was a real respect between the two sides."
I ask about his politics. He says he hasn't got any, not really. What worries him most about the world? "It's getting a bit deep, this, isn't it?" He stops to think and talks about bombs and terrorism and stops again. "I'll tell you what moved me the other week was when you saw those starvations in Niger, those young kids. Having a young child of my own, and seeing the state of those kids on the TV, that really moved me. I almost wanted to say, 'Ah, come and live with us,' sort of thing."
What is he like as a dad? Soft, he says, doting. "I see Holly, and whatever's happened in my day, good or bad, she smiles. She doesn't have a clue what's going on about anything, and I enjoy that. I enjoy spending time with her, just doing the things dads do."
at international level is an all-year game these days. Barely has the Ashes series finished and England are setting off for Pakistan. Flintoff admits he feels ambivalent about it, especially now that his wife Rachel is pregnant with their second child. Will the family go to Pakistan with him? "No. That will be the hardest thing for me. I've spent a fortnight away from Holly, that's the longest. Eight weeks is going to be tough."
Ask those closest to him what turned him round and they all mention Rachel. As does Flintoff. They met at Edgbaston in 2002 when he was trying to resurrect his career. They exchanged numbers and, as is the way with cricketers, he then texted her for a date. He calls Rachel the Missus and she calls him Andrew. She once called him Freddie, but he made it clear that it didn't feel right - in his private life he is Andrew Flintoff. This seems to be his way of coping with celebrity. Fred is the character, Andrew the husband and father.
Has his new family made him realise that cricket isn't the most important thing in the world?
"I don't think I've ever felt that, though especially not now with Rachel and Holly there, the family. Cricket's something I enjoy doing - failure or losing a game is hard, but not to the point where you've got to take my shoelaces and belt off me, to be honest."
Does he worry about cricket's capacity to destroy domestic life? The examples are legion.
"Of course I do. Of course I worry about it ... The family is more important [than cricket], that's a given. But at the moment I don't know how much longer I'm going to play for. I'm enjoying playing. It's given myself and my family a nice lifestyle."
Ah, the lifestyle. This is where the triumphant England team, and Flintoff especially, have really upped the ante. Overnight they have become celebrities on a par with footballers. And while their pay packets still can't compete with top Premiership players, they are doing very nicely. Not surprisingly, Flintoff stands to gain the most - it has been estimated that he could earn up to £3m in sponsorship deals over the next year. Already, sports commentators are reclaiming cricket as Britain's national sport and suggesting Flintoff is the new Beckham. And the professional worriers are already worrying about him. Will celebrity ruin him? Will he become too big for his boots? Will he become a flash bastard?
He says he can't imagine life changing in terms of family and friends, and that he finds the increased attention embarrassing. "It makes me want to hide. I enjoy it on the cricket field, but there are times when you're just with the family and you get a lot of attention ..." He thinks Rachel, who runs her own company promoting events, copes with it better. "She probably understands it a bit more, but I can get a little bit flustered, to be honest. It's a strange position to be in, when you go into a place and everybody is looking at you." So what does he do? "Sometimes just find a quiet corner, or move on, or go home."
But already there are obvious changes in his life. He has just moved into a £1.5m "gated" property, christened Fredingham Palace by the tabloids, in a posh part of already posh Cheshire. He and Rachel and Holly have already starred in Hello! - Rachel and him cuddled in a giant beanbag, he looking uncomfy, she looking at ease. Doubtless, he will be offered numerous advertising deals (he already promotes Red Bull, Thwaites, Volkswagen, the Sun and Barclays). Just this week there's been talk of a Freddie calendar and a Christmas single. He might be tempted - cash in while the going is good, cricket is a short career - but if Flintoff allows "Fred" to hang from every billboard, he also forgoes privacy.
"If he did take up all the offers and made £3m a year," Chandler says, "I reckon he'd have a divorce on his hands because he wouldn't have time to see his kids growing up. I tell him it's got to be about maintaining a balance, but I'm preaching to the converted. What he has to do now is be very organised. If he wants three days off with his family, he has to tell us so we can put it in his diary."
I ask Flintoff what he'd like to buy with his money. He mentions a bloke down the road who has a helicopter, and I burst out laughing and tell him he's turning into Noel Edmonds. He blushes. "Yeah, Mr Blobby! No, no, I'd never be in a position to get a helicopter, but he's always bragging that everybody's just 40 minutes away. I'm never going to get one. I don't really want stuff. We've probably got everything we need, to be honest."
· Freddie, the DVD of Flintoff's Ashes series, is released on November 14