The nickname that most people use for the young Lancashire and England cricketer Andrew Flintoff is Freddie. I call him Flinty. Whenever he walks in to bat or the captain gives him the ball to bowl, a frisson runs through the entire ground. With him in action, every single spectator expects something extraordinary to happen and, during the current Test series against the West Indies, it almost invariably does. This is a very rare phenomenon in the world of cricket.
Only recently, organisers of the game were lamenting the absence of huge crowds at Test matches. The five-day match, it was thought, was too long for most potential audiences. Flinty has transformed all that. I went to Edgbaston in Birmingham last month for the third day of the second Test, where I was interviewed on BBC Radio's Test Match Special. The ground was packed to capacity, as it was throughout the match.
When Flinty came on to bowl, you could see, with the naked eye, the physical readjustments of spectators in their seats. Brian Lara, the greatest batsman of modern times, was facing him and looked set for another century. But Flinty dismissed him on 95. He has now got him out several times, including twice, for very low scores, in the third Test at Old Trafford in Manchester.
At Edgbaston, I sat in the commentators' box next to Viv Richards, one of the greatest batsmen of all time. He whispered: "Flintoff has something that throws Lara off his game." That same something has brought the crowds flooding back.
Flintoff is tall and broad. He hails from Lancashire, which has produced generations of fine cricketers from the traditional working classes. Flintoff, you see, is deeply rooted. From the moment he could listen to a conversation, he would have been regaled with anecdotes of great cricketers and big moments of times past. He was born into the game.
So what makes him special? The great player draws the crowds by expressing their latent desires and hopes. In the 1960s, when the West Indies were regularly beating England, the great Caribbean writer C L R James said that English cricket had succumbed to "the welfare state of mind". The players, he said, had imbibed the attitudes of functionaries in the welfare state. Daring and adventure had been subsumed to security. But Flintoff has broken loose from that - and he is taking the crowds along with him.