A nation holds its breath for Flintoff
Nobody can appreciate the massive emotional gulf between success in an Ashes series to failure in another quite as well as Andrew Flintoff.
Man of the series and national hero when the Ashes finally came home in 2005, he was captain of a ship that sank to a 5-0 defeat barely a year later.
Pictures of Freddie the happy match-winner had been splashed liberally across the tabloids during that glorious summer; but in 2006-7 the look of pure anguish he wore as his team spiralled to a horrible defeat in Adelaide provided one of the most haunting images of the series.
That he starts this current campaign somewhere approaching full fitness is a massive stroke of luck given the amount of cricket Flintoff has lost to injury.
He has had four operations on his left ankle inside three years - and every time you see him land on it in that strange pigeon-toed manner as he hurls down another fast yorker you can understand why.
Even once that problem was finally fixed in October 2007 - though one says those words touching every bit of wood in the vicinity - he strained his left side in May 2008, missing a big chunk of last summer, and was further indisposed for much of the Caribbean tour at the start of the year with a hip problem.
Then he broke down with ligament trouble in his right knee at the Indian Premier League in April - though there was an obvious silver lining. By missing the first tranche of England's international summer he gave himself every chance to get himself fit by the time Australia came along.
The returns have been promising since his return with Lancashire on 11 June. He picked up 4-47 in an innings against Durham and in the next Championship game, against Hampshire, hit 54 batting at three. A spectacular 93 off 41 balls at Derby followed in a Twenty20 match.
All looked well until he missed the bus on the morning of a bonding trip to Ypres after a team dinner the night before.
That untimely incident, which raised questions as to whether he had been drinking, caused some amusement among Australian writers, who have witnessed at close-quarters the gradual demise of Andrew Symonds - a thirstier individual than Flintoff with even less enthusiasm for discipline.
We have to hope Andrew Strauss was not just glossing over Ypres-gate when he said of Flintoff: "He generally recognises when the time is to drink and when not to drink. As he's got older he's got more aware of that."
Leaving alcohol and time-keeping to one side, will we again see match-winning performances from Flintoff in this series?
We all want to know exactly how fit Flintoff is for this campaign. Twenty-five days of high intensity cricket is an awful lot for any 31-year-old fast bowler to cram into barely seven weeks - let alone one who is required to bat in the top six and who has faced the surgeon's knife so frequently.
I thought I was onto a good thing when Dave "Rooster" Roberts, the physio who has brought him through so many arduous rehabilitation programmes, agreed to an interview.
But I was asked to clear it with the England and Wales Cricket Board, and a spokesman sternly responded: "Our policy is not to make ECB medical staff available for interview on medical and injury matters." (Roberts is not on ECB staff, but never mind).
So I called Alec Stewart, who will be summarising for Radio 5 Live throughout the series, and asked him what we should expect from Freddie this Ashes.
Stewart said: "He has never been a prolific wicket-taker or run-scorer in Test matches. [For the record, Flintoff has five centuries and two five-wicket hauls in 75 Tests]. But what he has achieved is big moments that help turn games.
"The English public is hoping and praying that he stays fit because he brings so much to the team. Opposition teams see him as such a threat and the Australians do fear him, even though he hasn't quite reached the heights of 2005 since.
"In terms of his fitness, very rarely have I played with a bowler who starts a game 100% fit. What you want is people who can get through games. Freddie is exceptionally fit, but you do still think about what that ankle's going through."
Flintoff himself says he is not going to get worked up: "The fact that it's the Ashes and that people are expecting me to do things again is not something I take a lot of notice of. I go out there and give it my best shot and hopefully at The Oval, at the end of the fifth Test, we're stood on the top of the podium again."
Frankly, though he remains quite brilliant with the ball in one-day cricket, Flintoff's returns in the Test arena appear to be dipping - as Stewart alludes to.
He has played 22 Tests for England since they last won the Ashes, in which time his significant moments are contained in two four-wicket hauls in the Multan Test England should have won, the two half-centuries in Mumbai when they did, and the wonderful bowling spell against South Africa last summer at Edgbaston (when England lost).
"I keep reading that England do better without me," he said recently. Time to put that right, Fred. We'd all love it if you did.