In 2005, when the Australian cricket side arrived in the UK for the Ashes, instead of the meek submissive England team they had come to expect, they ran into a man who could bowl faster, hit the ball further and drink more beer after the close of play. He even had an earring. That’s why Andrew Flintoff is the Greatest Ashes Legend of All-Time.
Before the Bothamists spit out their pints in disgust, the Bradmanites knock over their schooners and the Warne brigade storm Lords in protest, let me explain.
Up until the talismanic all-rounder’s arrival on cricket’s biggest stage, Australia had won eight consecutive Ashes stretching back to 1989 at a combined aggregate of 28-7.
And losing a Test match isn’t a quick, painless death. For players and supporters alike, it’s a torturous process lasting up to five days where you are beaten, bullied, ground down mentally and physically only to be left with no excuses.
Many England fans spent agonising summers watching the likes of David Boon, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor bat for hours only for Merv Hughes and Shane Warne to then turn the previously placid pitches into minefields, causing batsman to fall like dominoes.
For over a decade-and-a-half, this trauma repeated itself every couple of years. Until the man nicknamed Freddie stepped up to the bar (quite literally).
The Aussie squad for the 2005 Ashes contained the tangible presence of greats such as Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, but even they seemed to shrink in the shadow of the burly Lancastrian.
Freddie Flintoff had first been selected for his country in 1998, as a big-hitting batsman who could bowl a bit and it took a few years for him to feel at home at Test level. But by the time the 2005 series got underway, he was inhabiting the penthouse suite.
After the team made an innocuous start at Lords, Flintoff’s two powerful half centuries at Edgbaston helped England to a thrilling win, regaining their supporters' confidence in the process.
But it was the way he played that really set him apart. The two innings in Birmingham contained nine sixes and his 402 series runs came at a faster strike rate than any other batsman, bar Steve Harmison’s tailend slogs.
His bowling, always fast, precise and hostile, stepped up another level as he claimed 24 scalps and rendered serial England destroyer Adam Gilchrist impotent.
Of course Freddie didn’t do it all himself, but he provided the belief that England could finally beat the dressing room of impregnable legends next door.
And they did, winning a classic series 2-1 to seize back the Ashes and end 16 years of one-sided domination.
His boozy celebratory efforts further endeared him to the fans, memorably turning up for a Downing Street reception in the midst of a 24 hour drinking session, red-eyed and disorientated.
Perhaps the herculean efforts (on the pitch) in the famous 2005 series took it out of an already-fragile body as Flintoff struggled to stay fit from that point on, although he did captain an under-prepared England side that traveled Down Under in 2006.
Their hosts had been salivating for revenge and duly took it in a merciless whitewash with Freddie, seemingly at times, fighting a lone battle with both bat and ball, but being overwhelmed by a great Australian team’s last hurrah.
However, there was time for one more great Ashes performance, when in 2009, despite further injuries taking their toll, Freddie managed to provide several iconic match-winning moments in his final Ashes role.
At Lords, a marathon spell of bowling and a five-wicket haul, finished off a determined Aussie rearguard allowing England to take a series lead.
And in his final Test at the Oval, his instinctive running out of Ricky Ponting helped claim a win, which sowed the seeds for England’s current period of extended success.
Then he was done—in a cricket sense anyway.
Future students of the game may wonder what all the fuss was about when glancing at the burly all-rounder’s statistics. But numerical measures simply can’t gauge the impact he had on his teammates, spectators and opposition.
These days, Flintoff is a jack of all trades…boxer…front man for oversized clothes company…radio interviewer…after-dinner speaker…quiz show panelist…
Although for many, he will simply be known as the greatest Ashes legend of all time.