Just five years ago he walked off London's Oval cricket pitch having made the run-out which gave England the Ashes ... and into the sunset of retirement. Everyone said there would never be another Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, the cricket all-rounder who broke all the rules — and
Now half a decade later at 36, after trying everything from extreme sports and boxing to TV panel games, Freddie Flintoff is back in the game he enlivened for so long — rejoining Lancashire and hoping to play in the T20 Blast series this summer.
Looking lean and bowling quickly, he is back in training with a metal knee which he hoped will put an end to the constant injury that plagued the last years of his career and finally forced his retirement. "Nothing has taken the place of cricket for Freddie," says a close friend. "He misses the excitement, the comradeship and the buzz of a really big occasion. They say they never come back, but Freddie has broken most of the rules and he now intends to break this one."
Cricket fans still remember Freddie's last game for England against Australia in 2009 when he ran out Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting with a bullet-fast throw from wide mid-on and ensured that England won the Ashes.
It was the culmination of a career which included 79 Tests, many as captain or vice-captain, 141 One-day Internationals and seven Twenty20 games as well as scoring over 4,000 runs for Lancashire and taking nearly 100 wickets.
But if friends expected him to take it easy after retirement they didn't know Freddie. He became a TV personality, took up professional heavyweight boxing and in his one fight beat championship prospect Richard Dawson despite badly damaging a shoulder. He set up a children's charity and cycled from Greece to London to raise funds. He broke 14 Guinness Records in one day for 2012 Sports Relief.
He moved to Dubai, took up extreme sports. He threw himself into family life with his wife Rachel and three children. But nothing, it seemed, was able to take the place of the sound of bat against ball and the adulation of a packed Test Match crowd.
From the start, Flintoff had trouble with injuries, often attributed to his bowling action, and with his weight although his 135 not out in a Natwest Trophy match for Lancashire was described by former England captain David Gower as "The most awesome innings we are ever going to see on a cricket field." Flintoff dismissed it as "Not bad for a fat lad."
His was always a roller-coaster career. During England's India tour of 2001-2 he was so disappointed with his performance that he broke down in tears in the dressing room. Then in the crucial final Test, with India needing 11 to win he ran out and bowled two batsmen with successive balls to win the match for England. The 2005 season, perhaps his best, started badly with an ankle injury which needed surgery and there were fears that his career was over.
Far from it. In the second Test against Australia he broke Ian Botham's record of six sixes in an Ashes Test match by scoring nine and the game became known as "Fred's Test." England regained the Ashes and Flintoff was named Man of the Series and ICC Player of the Year and received the MBE from the Queen.
Next year he became England Captain during the India tour but a shoulder injury prevented him playing his best, followed by ankle damage which kept him out of the Test series against Pakistan. Despite surgery, knee and ankle injuries continued to plague the all-rounder and although he had spells of brilliance there were disappointments too. As former England captain Peter Roebuck said: "Freddie is a fine cricketer who has never quite worked out how he takes wickets or scores runs. Torn between hitting and playing, pounding and probing, he doesn't always perform to his highest capabilities." In reply, Freddie Flintoff scored a hat-trick against the West Indies, only the third English bowler ever to do so. After playing in the Indian Premier League, earning over $1.5 million to become the league's highest-paid player, Flintoff retired from Test cricket in 2009 at the end of the Ashes series.
Years of relentless top class cricket had taken its toll on his health, particularly his ankle and knee. He had also developed deep-vein thrombosis and during the bad times in his career suffered from clinical depression. But friends say five years away from the game has worked wonders. Training with the Lancashire players he has been bowling at his old speed — over 80mph — and shows all his old magic with the bat. Lancashire insiders say that Flintoff is now in much better shape than when he last played for England — his foray into professional boxing saw him lose weight and reach his highest fitness levels for years.
He realises it's a gamble — there's a risk that if his comeback is dogged by injury that's what the fans will remember rather than the glory days when he walked away from the Oval as an Ashes winner for the second time. But he says he wants to get involved in cricket again and that in T20 games he will only need to get through spells of four overs rather than the day-long slogs of the past. The winter horror show in Australia has left English cricket at a low ebb and a return of the most charismatic player of the past 20 years in the new Twenty20 Blast series could bring the fans flocking. No wonder fiery Freddie can't resist having one last go.