As Andrew Flintoff rides into the sunset of his Test career, his body battered by the rigours of the game, fans around the world will struggle to keep their emotions in check as they reminisce on many of his battles he has fought and won almost single-handedly. Freddie was a warrior, a modern-day gladiator, who played through the pain barrier on many an occasion. He was the knight who brought cricket back to the limelight in a nation of football-lovers. And he was a lot more.
If "genius is the one most like himself", Freddie belongs to that ilk. He could achieve what mere talents could just dream. Of course he had his fair share of misadventures, but that is what genius is: unconventional and loath to comprehend social norms. They are an unpredictable lot, mercurial and capricious, but that is part of their appeal. Like a Maradona or Shane Warne, they are Hollywood; action heroes with shades of the anti-hero that make them compelling and endearing.
My earliest memory of this genius is from a balmy February night in Mumbai. It was the sixth and final one-day international between India and England at the Wankhede Stadium, and Flintoff was handed the task of stopping the hosts from clinching the series. India needed 11 to win from that final over of the game, but Flintoff allowed just five, running out Anil Kumble and bowling Javagal Srinath with the next ball. He ripped off his shirt in an extravagant celebration, running around bare-chested with his delighted teammates in pursuit.
Moments later, a forlorn Sourav Ganguly was seen pacing the floors of a darkened dinner hall. Since then, Flintoff has been the cause of despair for other captains, including the South Africa's Graeme Smith, New Zealand's Stephen Fleming and Australia's Ricky Ponting. Flintoff had made his debut three years earlier, but that tour of India was the turning point in his career. Earlier, he had flickered but intermittently, struggling with criticism of his weight and forced to quip "not bad for a fat lad" after a rare match-winning innings. But his glow was soon to reach the far reaches of the globe.
The shackles were broken with an audacious 137 at Christchurch and the legend grew with a blazing 44-ball 75 in the next Test against the Kiwis. Those two knocks were but just a prologue; in the three years to come, the Freddie phenomena captured the imagination of the world and placed him on the same pedestal as Warne and Sachin Tendulkar. Up to the end of 2002, Flintoff averaged just 19 with the bat and 47 with the ball; between 2003 and 2006, he played 35 of his 76 Tests, averaged 41 with the bat, scored four of his five centuries and took 130 wickets at 27 runs each.
He reached his peak during the epic 2005 Ashes, bringing the haughty Aussies down, starring in the tense, two-run win at Edgbaston that squared the series at 1-1, smashing his maiden Ashes century at Trent Bridge as England took a 2-1 lead and taking five wickets in the final Test at The Oval to script the first Ashes triumph for the hosts since 1987. As he brought the Aussies to their knees, he could also spare a thought for his opponents, consoling Brett Lee after the Edgbaston Test. That is Flintoff: a sporting icon who plays hard, but without malaise. He is still the humble "lad from Preston", as he describes himself.
Freddie could drown a pedalo as well and come drunk to a practice session, but why hold that against him. He is superhuman in his abilities, yet still a human, with his flaws and a gigantic frame, that was a bit more fragile "than a piece of Spode china". But it was the will and daring of the man that reserves his special spot in cricket history. He has had four soul-destroying ankle operations and a knee surgery recently, yet he has always fought back, going through some incredibly rigorous rehabilitation regimes.
Sadly, he has realised he can go no further in Test cricket. He will still be around in one-dayers and Twenty20, but the Ashes will be "Freddie's Farewell". One hopes, it will be a memorable send-off, with the urn beside him. firstname.lastname@example.org