The scene is Dunsfold Park aerodrome, home of the test track of Top Gear, one of the most popular shows on television, and Andrew Flintoff, Ashes hero turned unlikely BBC star, is preparing to continue the role he has made his own – the self-appointed TV ‘Daredevil.’
Only this time there are no high-speed japes, with Flintoff and his co-star Paddy McGuiness somehow pulling off another unlikely stunt and then walking away unhurt to have a laugh and joke about what they have just done. This time there is near tragedy.
It is difficult, but necessary, to repeat the facts of that awful day last December when one of the biggest figures in English sport so nearly lost his life a week after his 45th birthday.
Flintoff, without a helmet and with no airbag to protect him, was driving an open topped three-wheel Morgan Super 3, capable of speeds up to 130 mph, in icy conditions when it flipped and slid along the track, dragging his face along the tarmac with it.
The man synonymous with England’s fabled 2005 Ashes success, who went on to become a household name for a variety of diverse TV roles, suffered multiple facial injuries and broken ribs after waiting 45 minutes in agony for a helicopter to airlift him to hospital.
Andrew Flintoff is working with the England team nine months on from a near-fatal crash
The cricketer turned TV star furthered his self-appointed ‘Daredevil’ role while on Top Gear
Flintoff’s wife Rachel (seen here on their 2005 wedding day) was told to expect the worst
He would spend four hours on the operating table as surgeons battled to put a national treasure back together. Flintoff’s wife Rachael, who had hurried to Surrey from the family home in Cheshire to be at his side, is told to expect the worst.
Fast forward almost exactly nine months and Flintoff is on Tuesday where he would never have again expected to be. At the Oval, scene of that unforgettable Ashes finale that gripped the nation 18 years ago and, in 2009, his final Test when he dramatically ran out Australian captain Ricky Ponting on the way to another England Ashes triumph.
Only this time there are no packed crowds. No spectators at all. Just the hum of an England practice day ahead of the third one-day international against New Zealand, with players in the nets going through their bowling, batting and fielding drills.
There, in the middle of this vast and famous old ground, is the unmistakeable figure of Flintoff, baseball mitt in his left hand and fashionable bucket hat on his head to be both one of the lads and remain as anonymous as possible, acting as wicketkeeper as England’s bowlers queue to bowl at their new unpaid mentor.
Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and David Willey all take their turn to work with Flintoff. Most strikingly, there is Jofra Archer, one of Flintoff’s successors as an England cricket superstar before injury brought a temporary halt to his glittering career, propelling 90 mph thunderbolts at a man they all grew up watching and adoring.
Flintoff looks thinner even than the great physical shape he got himself into post-cricket after giving up alcohol and following a more stringent fitness regime than he ever did while playing. Perhaps nine months of inactivity have affected his muscle definition but he looks very well considering what he has been through and is certainly fit enough to cope with the extra fast bowling of Archer and Wood, just spilling the odd take in his big mitt.
There is a scar stretching from the bridge of his nose to his chin, suggesting multiple reconstructive operations and skin grafts. The right side of his face appears to show signs of nerve damage. His nose is still covered in gauze and the grazes on his face are still fresh.
But one thing overshadows everything. Flintoff is smiling. He never stops smiling as he interacts with the bowlers, offering little tips as he goes, and then greets other players warmly as they arrive, sharing an embrace and chat with Jonny Bairstow for one. As David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd so accurately told Mail Sport. ‘Andrew is home. He’s Freddie again.’
Flintoff’s scars are visible as the former star quietly began working with England’s fast bowlers
The England great has been working with the team at the Oval, the scene of his final Test when he dramatically ran out Australian captain Ricky Ponting to help England to Ashes success
Flintoff, 45, has been smiling when greeting and working with members of the England team
The England Ashes hero’s involvement as a consultant came without an announcement or fuss
It was last Friday at Cardiff when Flintoff, quietly and without fanfare, stepped back into the public eye for the first time since the accident that cost him so dear. He had joined up with the England team for the 50-over series against the Kiwis, just to help out where he could without reward and no announcement or fuss. It was how he insisted it had to be.
The return of Freddie, as the nation knows him, but Andrew to friends and close family, has been orchestrated by his big mate and now managing director of England cricket in Rob Key. The pair, along with Steve Harmison, formed a close bond as players and now Key has been in constant touch with Flintoff since the accident, taking things slowly but encouraging him back to the game he has, at times, had a complicated relationship with.
So close are the pair that, Mail Sport understands, Key has regularly turned to Flintoff for advice ever since he stepped out of the commentary box and stepped into the huge challenge of running England’s men’s cricket.
It was Key who urged Freddie to work with England Under 19s this summer. It was Key, as Mail Sport revealed last Saturday, who invited his close friend to three Ashes Tests to watch incognito away from all the attention his presence would inevitably bring.
‘I would get texts from Keysie when I was at a game with just two words in them ‘Fred’s here’, said Bumble, a big mentor and influence on Flintoff as his first coach at Lancashire and England Under 19s. ‘Then I would try to get to where he was for a chat.
‘The funny one was Manchester. Andrew was sitting there with Key in a room in the media centre at Old Trafford about 10 yards from the world’s press. They had no idea. He arrived with a hat and scarf on and didn’t want to be seen by anyone.’
Flintoff has carried on that approach with England this week. There has been very little focus on his presence in the camp on Sky. There have been no interviews on TV, radio or in the press. These are considered the first baby steps in what will eventually be a full-time return to cricket for arguably its biggest living name worldwide other than Ian Botham.
Clearly the involvement, that ends for now with the last ODI at Lord’s on Friday, has gone well. ‘He has so much to offer and it was a no-brainer to get him involved,’ said a source close to the England dressing room. ‘These players grew up watching him. He has had his ups and downs in the game but he relates to everyone and that’s important in coaching.
England’s bowlers have been speaking to Flintoff about all aspects of his stellar career
Rob Key, England’s managing director, has orchestrated his friend’s involvement with the team
Flintoff returned to the public eye in Cardiff last week for the first time since his accident
David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd revealed Flintoff had attended three of the Ashes tests in disguise
‘Everyone has enjoyed having him around. He’s fantastic value. The players have been asking him about everything. From running out Ricky Ponting at the Oval, to playing for England in the 90s, to recovering from injury and even playing in the IPL.
‘There’s no reason why this cannot be the start of something. If Fred wants to carry on working in cricket, why not? There are so many issues to settle first but there is no doubt cricket is the thing he loves most. It’s family with Fred then cricket. There’s nothing better than being back in the team thinking you’re having an impact. Even without the accident I think he would have been back at some point.
‘But one step at a time. This is literally the first time he has been out and about since the accident so he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself. We’ll take it as it comes but it’s been good for him to be out thinking of something other than the crash.’
They are feelings echoed by the players. ‘Freddie has been really good for me this week,’ England bowler Reece Topley told Mail Sport. ‘He’s a massive character and an idol of mine and the things he’s said to me have really resonated. He had serious injuries and his career was cut short and there’s a lot for me to relate to.
‘Some of his offerings have been poignant and I’m just grateful to have him around. He’s having a real impact here and that speaks volumes for him as a bloke. It’s been exciting and I’m just hoping this isn’t the only time he’ll be with us.’
There is no doubt that popularity is echoed by those closest to Flintoff and he is an immensely loyal and generous friend in return.
‘I’ll tell you what sort of person he is,’ says Bumble. ‘A mutual friend hasn’t been well. I won’t tell you who it is. But Andrew just turned up unannounced at his front door this week to see how he was. He cares about people and that will come through in his coaching.
‘He rang me both before and after his accident to ask my advice on getting back into cricket. He was under sedation one time he rang but I told him it was a terrific idea. And Rob Key is absolutely the best man to drive it. Those two are incredibly close.’
Steve Harmison, left, admitted he had been left in tears after seeing Flintoff for the first time since his accident and was left was a ‘lump in his throat’ when he joined up with England
Flintoff suffered gruesome facial injuries a crash while filming the BBC’s Top Gear in December
Reece Topley said the the advice of his idol has ‘really resonated’ along with his career story
Flintoff had experienced highs with England including inspiring Ashes winning triumphs
The all-rounder also experienced the low of being sacked as England vice-captain in 2007
Perhaps Flintoff’s closest friend in Harmison concurs. ‘I must admit the first time I saw him after the accident I was in tears,’ said the former fast bowler this week. ‘But there was also a lump in my throat when I saw the big fella back with England.
‘He went off and did something else after cricket and I could understand that but the problem cricket had is what Andrew went into next paid him a hell of a lot of money and it was hard to get him back. But if you think about the knowledge he has he will be a great addition to anything the ECB want to involve him in.’
It hasn’t always been straightforward in cricket with Flintoff. By the time he retired, had lost 5-0 to Australia as captain and been involved in the infamous pedalo incident in St Lucia, he had a love-hate relationship with the game and many people in it.
Relations are certainly frosty between Flintoff and the bulk of the English cricketing press and there was even once a bizarre rant at his old Lancashire and England team-mate Mike Atherton he insisted the London Evening Standard newspaper print.
One of his former captains told Mail Sport ‘Freddie is complicated. He is also self-conscious and can be sensitive. It would have taken a lot for him to come back out in public this week but there is no doubt he looked comfortable and relaxed again. And I think he’s mellowed. He has re-built bridges with a lot of the people he fell out with.’
A lot of those people feared for Flintoff, mainly because of his drinking, when he retired but there is no doubt he proved them wrong by giving up the booze, sorting himself out and forging a spectacularly successful career in television.
Intriguingly, it is that ‘Daredevil’ role he has always seemed attracted to, whether it was reinventing himself as a boxer, in the hugely popular Sky programme A League of their Own alongside Jamie Redknapp and even taking risks singing in a west end musical.
But that ‘Daredevil’ nature caught up with him almost self-destructively in the end. ‘The problem with Freddie is, if you go fast he wants to go faster,’ a source close to him told Mail Sport. ‘If you are daring he wants to be more daring. You can’t stop the ferocious competitor coming out.’
There is no doubt Flintoff was seriously emotionally and physically affected by the crash that leaves his TV career in doubt and the future of Top Gear uncertain.
Flintoff embarked on a television career after his retirement and joined Jamie Redknapp, left, on the popular Sky programme A League of their Own before joining Top Gear
Flintoff’s career in television remains uncertain due to the affects of the crash last December
The near fatal accident suffered by Flintoff appears to have brought him back to cricket
Meanwhile the ramifications of what happened at that Surrey aerodrome rumble on, with Mail Sport understanding legal action by Flintoff against the BBC for negligence is still very much a possibility.
The last nine months have certainly changed him. ‘He has always been a daredevil but he doesn’t want to do that anymore,’ added the source.
Perhaps Flintoff was always destined to return to cricket. It just took a near-death experience to make it happen. He was an ambassador for the 2019 World Cup and at one appearance I asked him why he had distanced himself from the game that made him.
‘I didn’t want to work in the game when I retired because I didn’t want to resent it,’ he told me then. ‘But you’d be surprised how much I watch and my two boys play (Corey and Rocky are both in the Lancashire set-up). At the moment there’s a lot going on but I’ve got an ambition to coach at some point. My first love has always been cricket.’
That point has arrived. Flintoff had barely been outside the front door of his house near Altrincham since returning from hospital just after last Christmas. He has been stuck at home, hiding from the gaze of the public and the paparazzi, broken in both body and mind.
But now he has a purpose and it is no exaggeration to say Rob Key and cricket may have saved him. Andrew Flintoff will, slowly but surely, be seen more and more in English cricket and with the England team.
As Bumble says ‘Freddie is back home.’