Freddie Flintoff was once, unarguably, the most famous man in Britain. For one unforgettable Ashes summer he carried all before him, as England beat Australia for the first time since records began. Or so it seemed. He was the sports personality of the year, in every sense: scoring centuries, hitting sixes, splaying wickets, consoling vanquished Aussies – when he wasn’t bouncing them at 90mph – carousing on victory parades and ending up drunk at Number Ten. Everyone who was anyone wanted to meet him, to shake his hand. Some of us – it wasn’t just me, surely – even considered naming their newborns Freddie, before deciding there would be far too many. But that was 2005.
Four years later, Andrew Flintoff – “Call me Freddie. My wife calls me Andrew. And my mum, obviously” – bowed out of international cricket at just 31, still an England hero and with one more Ashes win under his belt. But how he has missed the game since.
“It’s hard when you finish, finding new things. At 31 it was like being 16 again. You’re going into a new world. You’re learning some- thing new. I remember walking into the Lancashire dressing room at 16 and being sat there with Michael Atherton and Wasim Akram. To feel like that again at 31 is quite bizarre.”
He played that final Ashes series in 2009 in pain, cortisone injections propping up a knee that had been pounded into the crease by every inch of his 6ft 4in frame.
“I had the missus [Rachael] dressing me in the hotel room and I’d get to the ground and have all my jabs and get wheeled out there. I shouldn’t have played that series really. It cost me three years of my career. It just dug holes in my knee.
“Cricket comes thick and fast. You take it for granted. When it’s taken away, you realise what it means. Ultimately, injury cost me and I couldn’t come back from the last one. But the last Ashes series  made it all the sweeter being out there. I was playing against myself, and my body won in the end. But if there’s a time to finish and play your last professional match, I suppose winning the final Ashes Test at the Oval is the ideal way to do it.”
He finished with Test averages of 31 with the bat and 32 with the ball. Some say he was better than that, but put the team ahead of personal milestones. Does he think Jonathan Trott, widely criticised earlier this summer for crawling to a half-century against New Zealand, is selfish?
“Yeah, no qualms about it. He scores a lot of runs. He wouldn’t swap his runs. He plays his way and wipes everything out. They say batters need to be selfish, and I’m not sure about that, but his method works for him.”
And what of his old team-mate Kevin Pietersen, banished last year for not being a team player, but now recalled. “Kevin’s entertaining, isn’t he? But the rate he scores his runs always keeps the team in the game. People get hung up on averages, but I tend to think, ‘How many games did I influence?’ At Lord’s I once got a hundred against South Africa and they put my name on the honours board. I wouldn’t mind it being taken off – we got beat by an innings. I don’t think anyone’s name, if England get beat, should be on a board.”
He has since turned to radio and TV, where he is a regular on Sky1’s sporting quiz show A League of Their Own and has a sideline in documentaries that have seen him wrestle Mexicans, trek with Maasai warriors and endure blood-sucking leeches in the Borneo jungle.
“It’s like having a team again – all travelling together, all trying the best they could. I’m not saying it was a Bafta nominee, but I enjoyed it.” Which is more than he can say about his most recent TV adventure that saw him climb into the boxing ring as a novice heavy- weight, with a badly injured shoulder, to fight four bruising rounds.
“I ripped the shoulder out five weeks before the fight. The next morning I couldn’t lift my arm. I had to have my cartilage sewn back on.” He won’t be boxing again. “I’ve stuck on the diet, though.” Still no drink? “I did a bit over Christmas.”
This summer, he rejoins Radio 5 Live for their Ashes Roadshows and a series of interviews with his heroes, from Geoffrey Boycott to Pietersen. His last radio documentary was on sportsmen with depression.
“It was a passion project. When a routine you’ve enjoyed stops, it’s hard. A lot of people don’t prepare for it. You don’t think it’s going to end and then it does… what do you do?” In Freddie’s case, after the Indian Premier League and a spell in the sun in Dubai, he became for a while the face of Morrisons. Is he ready now for a job as a pundit?
“I’m only 35 – I’m not ready to sit in an 8ft by 8ft box, talking about an off drive. I’ve been in dressing rooms where they won’t have the sound up on the TV because they don’t like the criticism from ex-players. You think, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ I don’t want to be paid to watch cricket, I want to take my boys [Corey, 7, and Rocky, 5; he also has a daughter, Holly, 8] to Old Trafford or Lord’s.”
These days it’s more likely to be to Old Trafford, after his move back to Prestbury, not 50 miles from his childhood home in Preston. Does he ever sit his boys down at home to watch a box set of his own matches?
“I’m under pressure from the wife to put it on, but they don’t think I played. They think I work for Morrisons! When I drop them at school, all the other parents have suits on and they’re going to work. They ask, ‘What do you do, Dad?’” So what is he going to do? “I’d like to have a crack at presenting on TV.
I’d like to do more of the travel stuff. I’d like to get a day job too. Because with cricket, you’re in a routine all the time. With the television stuff, you work, then go home. You take the kids to school, then sit on the couch and think, ‘What am I doing today?’ I haven’t yet got to the point of watching Jeremy Kyle.” And then he tells me how it feels to take on the Aussies, and it hits you just how much he misses it. And how much we miss him, too – the giant Englishman who emptied the bars when he strode out to bat.
“You’re nervous, but trying not to show anyone. You walk out trying to look as if you’re in control, and nothing about you feels like you’re in control. You’re stood there with a bat in your hand, and as the bowler starts running in, your eyes get bigger, I can feel it now, and your senses just come alive. It’s an amazing feeling.”
How to watch: Every day’s play will be broadcast live on Sky Sports 2/HD, which has been renamed Sky Sports Ashes for the rest of the summer. Channel 5 will also show an hour’s highlights of each day’s play at 7pm.