“It’s worth a few quid, Your Majesty. Have a flutter each way,"
says Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. He’s telling Sport the story of how his life altered dramatically a decade ago this summer – one result being him receiving an MBE and chatting to the Queen about a racehorse he part-owned. How did it get on? “Ooh, it was running the next day at Carlisle,” he says, searching the memory banks. “I don’t think it came in, to be honest.” There goes the chance of a knighthood, Fred. “That went a long time ago.” A wry smile.
After a 2005 Ashes series that captured public imagination, it wasn’t just Her Maj who became aware of Flintoff. In one summer, he went from being well known in cricketing circles to joining the likes of ‘Becks’ or ‘Gazza’ for football, ‘Jonny’ for rugby union or ‘Big Frank’ for boxing – individuals so familiar to the British public that they can be identified with just a first name or nickname.
‘Freddie’ became a household name over an epic summer of cricket, during which England won a rollercoaster series 2-1 over a great Australia team featuring the likes of Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath. Flintoff was 27, a larger-than-life all-rounder who bowled at express pace and bludgeoned with the bat. If captain Michael Vaughan was the brains of the team, Flintoff was its beating heart.
“It doesn’t feel like it ever even happened – it feels a lifetime ago,” Flintoff says now when asked whether the series feels 10 years old to him. “It’s a tricky one. People want to hear about it, but I can get a bit embarrassed by it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased it happened. It was amazing to play in. But I’ve never sat down and watched the 2005 Ashes. I probably never will.”
How did Flintoff cope with going from being well known in cricket to being famous in just a few months? “It were different,” he says, evenly. “Paparazzi outside the house, people knowing who you was… But I’ve heard [famous] people whinge about it. I don’t have many gripes. Cricket is not like football, where it’s tribal. Everybody here tends to support England, so people are friendly. That’s one reason I’m not a big football lover. People stand in a crowd, shouting abuse at each other – grown men booing their own team! It’s not like that at cricket. And without the attention and the media, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. So it’s not something that I feel negative about.”
What Flintoff is ‘doing now’ encompasses a variety of TV and media work, plus a summer speaking tour named 2nd Innings. Springing from the rambling, genuinely funny podcasts Flintoff does regularly with his pal Clyde Holcroft, it’s designed to coincide with the 2005 Ashes anniversary – but that’s not the only topic covered.
“I don’t work too well to restraints.”
We can picture a group of former England captains and coaches nodding vigorously in agreement, even if Flintoff is referring to his show rather than his sporting career. “We have the premise of a plan, but we have room to talk about current things,” he explains. “Some of it’s cricket-based, but not strictly cricket – it’s the stuff I used to get up to on tour, in the dressing room.”
“I did one of my warm-up shows in a theatre near here,” says Flintoff, sat in the Sport office near Waterloo. “The guy who ran the place had just put the show out to his mailing list, so it was all theatrical types in the audience. We get out there and I’m doing a story about my balls or one about taking too many Viagras… These people go and watch Macbeth! They like Shakespeare! And here’s me telling a story about bathing my balls. I had to work to get a laugh – but I enjoyed that, actually. We try and involve the audience as much as we can.”
Involving spectators was something Flintoff never struggled to do as an England cricketer. The 2005 summer represented a golden high for English cricket. Why does he feel the series captured the public imagination so well?
“A few reasons really. One, it was on Channel 4. We had millions of people watching. I think that was a massive thing, it being on terrestrial telly. That’s not a dig at Sky – they have put so much money into the game, and where would cricket be without that? But we saw the effect of terrestrial TV: the excitement, the audiences we were playing to. So it’s a tough one, that. Not a debate I’m even trying to get into. But, because it was on terrestrial TV, it meant more people watched.”
That Ashes was the last time an England Test series was broadcast live on terrestrial TV in the UK. Yet Flintoff is correct that the investment by Sky has, via the ECB, provided important funding for improving facilities and coaching at the grassroots of the game.
Even away from the ongoing ‘exposure versus investment’ debate connected to TV rights, however, Flintoff points out that cricket might always have struggled to hang on to the soaring public interest post-2005.
“That Ashes series was good and bad for cricket,”
he says. “The Aussies had one of their best ever teams and we’d beaten everyone in the build-up, so there was real excitement beforehand. Then it seemed that every game had something incredible about it – equally as good as the previous one, but in a different way. Cricket fans loved it. But people who had not seen much cricket before and got into it maybe thought: ‘Is cricket like this all the time?!’ They’ve not sat through a county game – here’s Leicester versus Derby! Here’s a Test against Zimbabwe! After that series, people were expecting a lot.”
It wasn’t just cricket’s popularity that came down to earth with a bump after that series. The England team’s form dipped, too, intertwined with Flintoff’s own struggles. The 2006/07 Ashes series down under saw a vengeful Australia whitewash an England side captained by Flintoff in Vaughan’s absence through injury.
“It wasn’t so much playing cricket that was the hardest thing in Australia,” says Flintoff of the 5-0 drubbing. “It was the state I was in at that point. Around 2005, I started getting injured. That was taking its toll, but I also took the whole series so personally. I perform best when I’m enjoying things. I think the captaincy and the pressure I put on myself brought out a lot of other things – a lot of insecurities – that had been festering away under the surface. It all seemed to come out.”
A World Cup in the West Indies came hot on the heels of that series. England’s distinctly middling campaign is, rather unfortunately, best remembered for an incident where Flintoff tried to clamber into a pedalo after a boozy night out. He was stripped of his position as vice-captain and received a one-match England ban.
“I was thinking: ‘This is it – rock bottom,’”
he reflects. “After that World Cup, I stayed on in Barbados and I remember thinking: ‘Well, things can’t get worse than this. So what are you gonna do?’
“From a really selfish point of view, it was a nice thing to experience. Only when you reach that rock bottom – whether it be sport, mental health or your job – can you start to build yourself back up. You start putting yourself back together. Not just cricket, but also physically and mentally. I really enjoyed that process.”
Flintoff talks about mental health from a position of experience. He said this year that part of the reason he’s virtually stopped drinking is that “I suffer with depression, and it doesn’t help”. At what point did he realise depression was affecting him?
“I did a documentary for the BBC a few years ago about depression in sport,” he explains. “The idea was to overcome the stigmas around it. Hopefully, people watching who were struggling would see guys like Ricky Hatton and Steve Harmison talking about it and think: ‘You know what? It’s not just me. It happens to people.’
“When I was doing the documentary, listening to them speaking so candidly about it, I could identify with them. It was nice, actually, that I felt I could open up about it. I revealed a lot more about myself than I thought I was going to. It’s not a big deal. Going to a doctor about depression is like going to a physio with a bad leg. It’s not something people should feel worried or embarrassed talking about.”
If the winter of 2006/07 represented rock bottom professionally, 2009 was about redemption. Flintoff played his third and final Ashes series that summer, under the captaincy of Andrew Strauss.
“It was bittersweet,” he says looking back. “I’d had surgery 12 times by then, but the Test at Lord’s was the one moment for me, when I took those wickets in the second innings. I got up that morning and I couldn’t get out of bed, the missus was helping me get dressed. I went to the ground and had me jabs [painkilling injections] in me knee, but the day had a strange sense about it. I knew it was my last time playing at Lord’s – that I was never gonna set foot on this ground again in a Test. I had to make it count.
“I said to Straussy: ‘There’s gonna be a real uncomfortable situation if you try and take the ball off me.
I’m gonna bowl all day, until my arm falls off.’”
Flintoff grins. “I started bowling, and it was strange. I realised it was the best I had ever bowled, but also the best I was ever gonna bowl.
“Realistically, my knee was knackered. I saw a surgeon before that Test and he wanted to operate on me that day. I would miss the series, but I might prolong my career. After what happened in 2006/07, I had to play – but it finished me off. That was it. For me, my career really finished at Lord’s. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it again. So the celebration is a little bit embarrassing – but I was just taking it all in, one last time.”
Flintoff’s trademark ‘I am an Ashes colossus’ celebration (chest puffed out, arms spread, chin jutting) does seem at odds with a man who seems slightly shy when asked to discuss his own glories. Flintoff is happier talking about those he respects, like his 2005 captain Vaughan. “An amazing liar,” he says. “Whatever the situation of the game, no matter what he was feeling, he always had a calm authority about him.”
He’s also a big supporter of the current England skipper. “The only thing I got right as England captain is playing Alastair in his first Test,” he says of captain Cook. “I liked him right away. I’ve been England captain and I know how hard it is. You don’t get everything right – or in my case very few things right – but it’s so important to have the team behind you. And everyone backs Alastair.”
Flintoff is unequivocal on Cook, less so on an old teammate from that great 2005 side: one Kevin Pietsersen.
“What’s Kevin like to play with? I found him difficult at times
– but I was difficult at times. He wouldn’t be in the top 10 most difficult England players I’ve played with, by any stretch. He’d be nowhere near it. But he’d be in the top three best. Some of the characters I played with when I first started – Kev is Mother Theresa compared to some of them. Those players were nowhere near as good as him yet they carried on 10 times worse – and now they pontificate about the game.”
What about this summer’s Ashes? Flintoff is more worried about England’s bowling than the batting. “My only concern is pace,” he says. “I’m a huge Stuart Broad fan. He’s taken more than 280 Test wickets and he’s only 28. That’s amazing. But he needs to bowl quick. There’s no point having Stuart Broad bowling 81 or 82 miles per hour. There’s lads in county cricket who do that all day. But we saw in the West Indies that, when he bowled at 90 miles an hour, he can change the complexion of a game by taking wickets. I’d have him bowling shorter spells, just four or five overs – quick – or I’d look at someone like Steve Finn to come in and do it alongside him.
“But I like the position England are in. There’s talent in our batting – Jos Buttler is someone I’d pay to watch – and everyone has written us off, so we can just go out there and have a go. What have we got to lose? I like England in that situation. I don’t think we’re favourites, but I do really think we can nick it.”
Flintoff beams as he talks about the Ashes, seeming much more comfortable with cricket than he once was. Like many ex-pros, he struggled immediately post-retirement, admitting that he didn’t want to be around the game as the feeling of missing it was too raw.
“I like watching cricket now, I enjoy talking about it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have said that three years ago.”
He’s even made a couple of Twenty20 cameos in the past 12 months, whacking a few sixes for Lancashire Lightning in last summer’s T20 Blast before a trip to the Big Bash in the winter. He claims to be done with playing for good, but a new-found gym habit means he looks leaner and healthier now than at times during his career. Given that he wasn’t renowned for a spartan lifestyle off the field, does he ever wish he’d fallen in love with all this health and fitness stuff sooner?
“Not really,” he says cheerily. “Here’s the thing: I enjoyed it. Other people look at my record and say I should have done better, but I got to play for Lancashire and England. As a lad from Preston, who went to school on an estate, I exceeded all my expectations. What people forget is, there’s no average for fun.”
Photography by Jon Enoch