In 2005 I had just left University, and the last day of the Oval Test was the induction day at my post-grad Journalism course. I didn’t listen to anything said that morning – too busy refreshing the screen in front of me as wicket after wicket fell, desperate to slip an earphone in, but unsure I would be able to control myself. But a fingernail lunch became a triumphant tea, and I’m glad to say I skipped my second day to go to Trafalgar Square.
That, of course, was Freddie’s real finest hour. Perhaps the last time this country will unite behind one of its sporting heroes getting totally smashed.
It was a day without recriminations – no one could have predicted the extended hangover it would supposedly spawn. Simon Jones conducted the crowd – a long international career ahead of him. Marcus Trescothick was at the top of his game, KP had hair like a skunk and to the gathered public Michael Vaughan’s knees were sturdier than Nelson’s column. And Freddie…? He just swayed.
That summer the whole country crushed on Flintoff. Cricket fans already loved him, but his derring do, his smile and humility soon hooked everyone else. His behaviour epitomised how we would like to see ourselves in battle, and he was as likably British as could be – a Lancashire lad who’d struggled with his weight and liked a pint. A generation of supporters had grown up with him, vicariously willing him on from his debut at 20 through his very public attempts to control his weight and eventually channelling his massive talent into three years of genuine achievement and resultant superstardom.
Of course the English game needed a new Botham, but more than that the public needed a sportsman they could identify with. Footballers had long gone – in the 70s George Best was a hero for bedding and boozing, now, well we all know about now don’t we. Money changes things, whether it is jealousy or something else, it triggers a disconnect between fan and player. I have a season ticket at Spurs, yet there are few of the team I’d like to go for a drink with. With cricket, and with Fred in 2005 it was different, different in a way it may never be again with the IPL cash.
Flintoff made loving cricket simple that summer – the ultimate in sporting naivety, what you saw was what you got. And what you got was great.
Sadly since then things have got murkier, for reasons mentioned on this website yesterday. Many of the words written about Flintoff since his retirement are a blow to cricket, and to its fans. They pour scorn on our need to take certain things at face value. Sport is escapism, but we need to believe in its narrative and its characters. Realising that many journalists see Flintoff as a money-grabbing, divisive egotist is as unsettling as discovering the happiest couple you know are in a sham relationship, or indeed that cricket matches are fixed.
Of course many grateful fans will defend him unconditionally. I’ve heard too much to be one of them, but I hope that in a few years I’ll remember him for 2005 and what came before it. After all who else has brought us so much pleasure?
He came into our office a few months ago after filming an episode of League of their Own and everybody melted. He was an awesome presence as he looked up at the cover of our September 2009 issue – it’s not often you see Christ in a hoodie. If mugging around with James Corden really is the future, then good luck Fred, and thanks for ‘05.
Sam Collins is editor of thewisdencricketer.com