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Your last chance to be a hero, Freddie.

Byline: Michael Calvin

ATHLETES of a certain age insist they don't read the papers.

They'd rather be an urban terrorist on Xbox than sit through a TV montage of their greatest hits.

They're fibbing, of course. They know of every slight, real or imagined.

They're quietly obsessed with their legacy, and the light that history will shed on their career.

It's only natural. Their lives are on fast-forward.

Emotions are exaggerated.

Fame leaves them with oxygen debt. There's no easy way out.

No matter how stratospheric the highs, or how celebrated their achievements, they are dispensable.

Most sportsmen leave as losers, discarded as k casually as a crisp packet.

From Don Bradman's last Test innings duck to Zinedine Zidane's World Cup head butt, final impressions are lasting impressions.

There's a lot to think about, in the icon industry.

Michael Vaughan (above) must decide whether to stick or twist. Freddie Flintoff must make the most of borrowed time.

They're inextricably linked in Ashes folklore, even if they've taken contrasting paths to the same crossroads.

Vaughan was the leader who seized cricket's Holy Grail at The Oval on a late summer evening in 2005.

Flintoff was the larrikin who brought celebrations to a predictable conclusion by watering the gardens of 10 Downing Street without turning on a tap.

Vaughan's dilemma is the more immediate.

He can either be remembered as an inspirational England captain, or as an unwitting irritant who outstayed his welcome. His last wish, a valedictory victory over the Aussies, is unlikely to be granted.

The alternative, eking out his central contract in county cricket, is Chinese water torture.

Drip. Drip. Drip. There goes your relevance, son.

I'm told that the England selectors craved the easy option of offering him a place in an extended Ashes squad.

Vaughan didn't fulfil his side of the bargain with runs for Yorkshire.

He now owes it to himself to make the tough decision to tread that well-worn path from crease to commentary box.

Vaughan will ache for the intimacy of the dressing room, but he'll be well paid for shrewd sound bites, sweaty anecdotes. Child's play, for grown-ups.

Flintoff, meanwhile, must decide whether he wants to be Little Andrew, the schoolboy sensation who spawned a legend, or Big Freddie, ogre of the Long Room.

He's been soured by the journey from St Annes Cricket Club 4th team to Test cricket.

It didn't help that his most significant form of transport was a pedalo on the Caribbean Sea.

We loved the thought of him lurching down the corridors of power, but flinched at the prospect of Captain Insensible.

The Aussies revere him, can't understand why he's not a shoo-in for Minister of Culture.

He devoured fish fingers at his wedding, drank pints with One-Eyed Bernard.

He never forgot his mates, or his manners.

In his final warm-up match, at Derby on Thursday evening, Flintoff was a cross between Buzz Lightyear and the Pied Piper.

He played with an innocence that defied tales of an inflated ego, prompting a pitch invasion by bright-eyed boys.

Those kids were in a special place, the forcefield of a cartoon character made flesh.

Appreciate that influence while it lasts, Freddie.

It's a privilege.

Throw yourself at the Aussies this summer, enjoy another excellent adventure.

Some day your body will finally break down - and probably sooner rather than later.

You won't be protected by the bubble wrap of your talent for ever.

CAPTION(S):

BONE IDOL: Flintoff 's a fragile superhero
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 28, 2009
Words:581
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