The game has moved on so much in the five years since the all-rounder retired he will find it difficult to scale his former heights
It was as if the cameras had never been switched off. When Andrew Flintoff made his comeback to cricket for his childhood club St Annes on Saturday, the media frenzy was even greater than when he had played his last game, for England against Australia, in August 2009.
Flintoff had a bowl, off a proper run-up, when St Annes fielded first.
He bowled a bouncer, then took the wicket of a Penrith batsman, and his celebration was suitably muted, suggesting that much bigger fish would follow. He finished with three for 26.
Meanwhile, at Lord’s, only three of his England team-mates had survived from his last appearance to represent England against Sri Lanka on Saturday: Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and James Anderson.
So much has happened in those five years, and so quickly does the wheel now turn. In addition Stuart Broad will return to the England team soon, and Matt Prior perhaps a little later.
But whoever represents England, and in any format, nobody now comes close to Flintoff as a man to empty bars and distract spectators from their drinks.
At his best, with bat and ball, Flintoff made anything seem possible – and, as a man of the people, he made people think they could do anything, too.
In a monochrome period of transition for English cricket, Flintoff’s return to Lancashire to play T20 – and he is slated for the Roses Match at Old Trafford on Friday – will be high profile so long as it lasts.
No more Kevin Pietersen, no more Graeme Swann, and no more Jonathan Trott for England in all probability: extreme characters have gone, to replaced by cricketers younger and greyer.
If Flintoff can roll back the years, it will be as a batsman. Straight-driving was his glory, and he should be able to hit a few more balls back over the bowler’s head, as he did in that Edgbaston Test of 2005.
He clattered Australia’s finest bowlers, not excepting Shane Warne, back into the stands and thereby gave birth to a new and exultant feeling: that England, after 16 years of degradation, could defeat Australia.
It was so clean, simple and effective. The pitched-up ball, a brief swing of mighty forearms and another six to England’s total.
But as Paul Collingwood wisely remarked when he returned to international cricket as England’s fielding coach earlier this year, albeit temporarily: the game has moved on at a frightening pace, and especially the skills required for T20.
When Flintoff last played, the carrom ball had still to be patented, and he much preferred to trash pace, not mystery spin; off-spinners also used to operate over the wicket.
Flintoff was able to stand at second slip for most of his time in the field and scoop up catches with bucket hands.
Now he is going to have risk that 36-year-old body by diving left and right and the cheers will soon turn to boos if he does not conform with modern practice and attempt the sliding stops.
Bowling could be another disappointment, again because T20 has moved on.
His greatest virtue in any format was the fast reverse-swinging yorker, delivered with a tremendous heave of the shoulders from wide on the crease.
But one or two tricks are no longer enough on the T20 circuit that he has said he aspires to join.
The slower ball was never a Flintoff forte, and now it is mandatory, whether leg-cutter or off-cutter or out of the back of hand.
Flintoff’s qualities were always born of strength, not subtlety.
It will be as big a miracle as his 2005 Ashes series – no all-rounder has ever had a greater one – if Flintoff’s time does come again.