Cricket star in mission to inspire a younger generation

BY HIS own admission, his first game of cricket a quarter of a century ago did not perhaps give too many clues as to what was to come.

Standing out near the boundary ropes, a six-year-old Andrew Flintoff was filling in for a player who had dropped out of an under-13s match in Lancashire and had to make do with a handed-down Manchester United tracksuit instead of cricket whites.

He also endured the ignominy of being out first ball when he eventually got to the crease, but his love of the game had nevertheless been ignited.

And as England's star all-rounder looks to bring to a close his Test career this summer, he took time out to inspire a new generation of cricketers when he visited Ashville College in Harrogate yesterday.

Flintoff took a break from the physiotherapist's table amid intense speculation as to whether he will start what would be his penultimate Test when play gets under way at Headingley today in this summer's fourth Ashes Test match.

His focus yesterday afternoon was on fielding questions and having a brief practice session with more than 100 young people who had signed up for one of his cricketing academies.

Flintoff, 31, said: "I never had the chance to play cricket when I was at school, we just played football. I was a centre-half and I was rubbish.

"But my dad played for a village side and I suppose I was always near a cricket field growing up. I watched the Ashes when I was a kid and always dreamed of playing for England, but never thought it would happen.

"I still can't believe that I am now out there playing for my country.

"Hopefully the academies can help get kids interested in cricket themselves. If we find a star of the future, all well and good, but that's not really what it is about.

"It is about getting the kids out there and enjoying the game."

During his two-hour visit to Ashville College, Flintoff was quizzed by children on a host of subjects ranging from his favourite player of all time to his curry of choice.

Childhood hero Ian Botham, who took the honour of his all-time favourite, has now become a firm friend off the field, and Flintoff revealed he has a soft spot for a lamb saag.

Spin bowler and tail-ender Monty Panesar is among Flintoff's favourite current England players to bat with – "as he makes you look brilliant" – although he admitted the immense talents of Kevin Pietersen have also been an inspiration.

Flintoff said: "He is the best batsman I have ever played with. He can do things that no-one else can do, and plays some outrageous shots."

Ashville College and The Mount School in York are among 14 venues nationally which are staging Flintoff's cricket academies until later this month.

Ten-year-old Jack Stabler-Langan yesterday won a Crazy Catch Challenge and had the chance of a play-off against Flintoff, which ended in a draw with 20 catches each.

But while Flintoff signed scores of cricket shirts, bats, balls and books for young cricketers during his visit to Harrogate, the question over his fitness was never far away.

Ever since he was forced to fly home to England in April for surgery after his hugely troublesome right knee forced him to quit the Indian Premier League early, speculation has been rife as to whether Flintoff would be able to play a part in this summer's Ashes series against the Australians.

While he has battled through the first three Tests, an 11th hour decision will be made this morning to see whether he plays in the Headingley match.

Flintoff yesterday remained upbeat, although he said: "It's no secret that I've got a bit of a dicky knee. But I want to play, like every member of the squad does – in fact, like half the country does.

"The Aussies will come at us hard. I'm hopeful I can play my own part."

RAIN FORECAST TO STAY AWAY

Forecasters predict a largely rain-free five days for the crucial Ashes Test at Headingley beginning today.

Any heavy rain overnight is due to clear, with cloud dispersing and some hazy sunshine likely during the afternoon. Tomorrow is expected to be largely sunny; Sunday is likely to be slightly cloudier while Monday and Tuesday may see showers.

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