It is little surprise that this year’s Ashes drew so many comparisons to 2005’s epic, since so many of that great series’ heroes were so prominently involved.
Kevin Pietersen and Michael Vaughan were among the loudest voices on Sky and the BBC’s flagship coverage. Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer all landed summer jobs in the English media, while the quips of their former Australian teammates tended to emerge overnight from a partisan commentariat back home.
A day of the Lord’s Test was dedicated to the Ruth Strauss Foundation, the charity set up by Andrew Strauss in memory of his late wife. His ’05 opening partner, Marcus Trescothick, remains within the inner sanctum as England’s batting coach.
Generally, for two months straight, you could not open your inbox without being greeted by a PR email offering the tuppence of one of the ensemble cast. And yet through it all, the man who emerged from that famous summer with twin accolades as both national hero and treasure was nowhere — or, at least, nowhere to be seen.
As we now know, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff was an incognito presence at several of the five Test matches across the course of June and July, keeping out of the limelight, as he had for the previous nine months while recovering from the car crash that almost took his life.
In truth, even without knowledge of that horrifying incident, Flintoff’s absence from the Ashes circus would not have come across as unusual. While so many of his contempories found that life after cricket consisted of more cricket, whether in backrooms, boardrooms or commentary booths, the all-rounder had opted broadly to leave the sport behind.
There were brief dabbles in the contrasting worlds of boxing and musical theatre, but genuine, prolonged success in a television post-career, most notably as a regular captain on panel show A League Of Their Own and then presenter on Top Gear. It was while filming for the latter late last year that Flintoff’s open-topped, three-wheeled car flipped while travelling at more than 120mph.
The severity of that incident was made clear when Flintoff quietly emerged back into the public gaze last week, still sporting harsh facial scars as he took up an unannounced (and unpaid) role on England’s coaching staff for the ongoing one-day series against New Zealand.
Were those of us in Cardiff eagle-eyed enough to spot exactly who was running fielding drills from under a bucket hat and baseball mitt across the Sophia Gardens outfield, it would have made for an uplifting sight.
But this is not simply a story of cricket opening its arms to one of its greats in need, for all that is a beautiful thing. For all sport clearly has plenty to offer Flintoff at this moment, he still has plenty to give it, too.
The current England side is built around a core of players in their early thirties for whom the 2005 Ashes was a formative series and to whom the likes of Flintoff and Pietersen were genuine idols. None of those discussing the former’s involvement this week have done so without a certain glow and glint.
Captain Jos Buttler called him a “legend”, fellow Lancashire man Liam Livingstone “one of my heroes growing up”, while seam bowler David Willey said it was “surreal receiving compliments from Freddie”.
Beneath, a generation of cricketer is beginning to emerge for whom, scary as the thought is, 2005 is beyond recollection. To them, Flintoff would no doubt make a fine, empathetic mentor, a macho figure, yes, but also one of vulnerability, having opened up in the past on his struggles with depression, bulimia and alchohol abuse. The same blend of understanding and inspiration has helped make Ben Stokes one of the country’s outstanding sporting leaders.
And there’s more. In the wake of the damning report published on equality in the game earlier this year, the England & Wales Cricket Board is on a major push to engage underrepresented groups, including those from black and Asian and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and just this week announced £2million of additional funding to help five key community organisations expand their outstanding work.
For an indicator of Flintoff’s motivations and potential impact beyond the boundary, one need only have watched his Field of Dreams television series, as 3.3million people did last year, and been taken in by the tale of an unlikely crew of youngsters whose preconceptions of a posh pursuit above their station are shattered by an England great.
It cannot be lost on those at ECB Towers, as they try to sell their game as open to all, that the cricketer with perhaps more name-recognition than any other in the country remains a state school-educated lad from Preston.
Flintoff’s return to cricket is, for now, without contract or commitment, his involvement with England due to end following Friday’s Fourth ODI at Lord’s. How great it would be for all parties were it to become something more.