Andrew Flintoff was one of the greatest English cricketers of his generation. He talks to Chris Bond about his colourful career on the eve of his return to Yorkshire.
OF all of England’s 2005 Ashes winning team, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff was the most popular by some distance.
Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick might have scored more runs and Michael Vaughan might have been the captain as England reclaimed the famous urn for the first time since 1987, but Flintoff was the heart and soul of that team. He was the player who embodied its passion and exuberance as England beat what is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever Test cricket teams that unforgettable summer.
He was also a match winner, picking up 24 wickets during the five Tests and pitching in with 402 runs, which led to him being named man of the series. It wasn’t by chance that he went on to win the BBC’s much coveted Sports Personality of the Year award that year. In an age of plaster saints here was a genuine sporting hero.
However, that Ashes victory proved to be the high watermark of Flintoff’s cricket career. Although he went on captain England and was part of the 2009 Ashes winning team, the wear and tear of top-level cricket had taken its toll on his body and he was forced to retire at the age of 32.
Since then he has forged a varied career as a TV personality, winning plaudits for the BBC documentary The Hidden Side of Sport, which offered an insight into depression among sportsmen and women. He’s even tried his hand at boxing, training for a one-off heavyweight fight in 2012 which raised a few eyebrows.
He’s never been afraid to try something different and later this month he brings his 2nd Innings show, in which he talks to his friend, the TV producer Clyde Holcroft, to the Leeds Grand Theatre.
As a Lancashire lad he’s expecting a bit of banter with the audience. “It should be a lively atmosphere and hopefully fun, too. I’m expecting a bit of stick, but why not?”
You would imagine he’s used to it by now. “The first time I played at Headingley it was like no atmosphere I’d experienced before, the Western terrace was wild,” he says.
But while Yorkshire cricket fans cheered him on when he played for England this went out of the window when he stepped on to the pitch for Lancashire. “When I played for England at Headingley I got a good reaction from the crowd, but the minute I was playing for Lancashire that was all forgotten. I remember saying to my captain, ‘I’m not going to field on the boundary in front of that lot.’”
Ever since he was a youngster all Flintoff wanted to be was a cricketer. He played his first competitive match at the age of eight and quickly rose up through the ranks, making his first class debut in 1995.
Both a big hitter and a fearsome bowler his abilities as an all-rounder drew comparisons with Ian Botham and like his predecessor he, too, became a talismanic figure in English cricket.
He reached his peak during that epic Ashes series a decade ago. “It’s strange but I don’t remember much from the matches themselves, but there are certain moments that do stand out. I remember sitting in the dressing room with the Ashes and having a beer with Steve Harmison and thinking, ‘how did we end up playing for England and winning the Ashes?’ It felt like the whole series happened so quickly, it was all over in a flash.”
In a country where football is the undisputed number one sport, it’s hard to over-emphasise the galvanising impact this Ashes series had. English cricket had spent most of the 90s in the doldrums, reaching a nadir in 1999 when England slumped to a humiliating series defeat against New Zealand that sent them plummeting to the bottom of the Wisden international rankings.
But by 2005, when they faced the much-vaunted Australians - whose team included such legends of the game as Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne - the England team was on the rise. “We were playing against one of the best teams ever seen. It was on terrestrial TV which meant that millions of people were able to watch it on Channel 4. That made a huge difference.”
All the ingredients were in place for a classic series and it more than lived up to the hype. “Each Test had something different, even the draws were entertaining. But as players we had no idea what was happening. It was only at the end when we went on the bus parade and thousands of people turned out that we realised how big it had all been.”
Between matches he and his family went on holiday so he hadn’t appreciated just how much the series had gripped the nation. “The reaction was amazing and it was great for cricket. People were talking about it and it wasn’t just fighting for inches with football on the back pages of the newspapers. Cricket was the big winner and in some ways that was more important than winning the Ashes.”
As well as boosting cricket’s popularity in this country, the Ashes victory also thrust Flintoff into the limelight as English cricket’s poster boy. Not that he warmed to being in the glare of the Paparazzi. “Suddenly there’d be people outside my house with a camera which I hadn’t expected and didn’t really like. You get used to it, but it never becomes normal.”
It’s now six years since a dodgy knee and ankle forced him to retire from cricket and even now he still misses the thrill of playing. “You’re readers will hate me for saying this, but I never got tired of wearing the Red Rose at Old Trafford. Ask Joe Root and he’ll say the same thing about playing for Yorkshire at Headingley. That buzz never gets boring.”
It’s a feeling he’s started to enjoy again recently. “My boys play cricket and I’ve been playing a bit with them and I’ve fallen in love with the game all over again.”
Like all England fans he’s delighted by the latest Ashes victory and although a coaching career may beckon in the future, for the time being he’s happy working in the media and doing his stage show. “We’ll see what happens but I’m enjoying things right now,” he says.
Flintoff has an easy charm that has even wooed the public down under, where he won the first series of the Australian version of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
But don’t expect to see him on Strictly Come Dancing any time soon. “No chance,” he says. “I’ve got no desire to dance on TV.” So he’s not going to follow in the footsteps of his old pal Michael Vaughan? “Vaughany? I can dance better than him now,” he says, laughing. “Mark Ramprakash was brilliant and Phil Tufnell was funny, but Vaughany ... it was like watching an ironing board.”
Freddie Flintoff: 2nd Innings is at Leeds Grand Theatre on August 30. For tickets go to leedsgrandtheatre.com or call 0844 848 2700.