‘I work hard at what I do’

Published : Jul 18, 2009 00:00 IST

Andrew Flintoff... in no rush to return to the captaincy.-AP
Andrew Flintoff... in no rush to return to the captaincy.-AP

Andrew Flintoff... in no rush to return to the captaincy.-AP

Andrew Flintoff talks to Laura Barton about the drinking, the fame game and why he is raising money for a physiotherapy unit at a children’s hospital.

Freddie Flintoff stands up, and the whole room seems to shrink: the chairs and tables retreat, and the ceiling suddenly bows low. At 6ft 4in (193cm), the England and Lancashire all-rounder is as tall and broad-shouldered as a farm boy with hair the colour of hay. Hand outstretched, he smiles awkwardly.

It was the Ashes that made Flintoff (born Andrew, nicknamed Freddie after the similarity of his surname to that of the cartoon character Fred Flintstone) a household name four years ago, when, following one of the most exciting series in memory, the English team beat the Australians for the first time in 18 years. The nation duly erupted into cricket mania, with honours and photo-shoots for the team, an open-top bus tour through the streets of London and a reception at 10 Downing Street, during which the team was said to have been so drunk they could barely remember meeting the Prime Minister (“An urban myth,” Flintoff assures me. “It was an unbelievable day and, contrary to popular belief, one I remember fairly well”).

Much of the attention then focussed on Flintoff, who had in the course of the series broken Ian Botham’s record of six sixes in an Ashes Test match and taken seven wickets in the same game. In the win at Trent Bridge (home of Nottinghamshire county cricket club) he scored a century, and on the fourth day of the final Test took five wickets. The Australian coach named Flintoff Man of the Series, and he also won the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award. The following February, with Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick unavailable, he was appointed captain for the Test series against India.

But the dream soon ended. In the spring, an ankle injury returned, ruling him out of the series against Pakistan. He returned to captain the side in Australia, where England were defeated 5-0, having held the Ashes for the shortest time in history. Flintoff, still plagued by the ankle injury, had played unexceptionally and was also cautioned for his behaviour and binge-drinking. And then, in 2007, at the Cricket World Cup, came the infamous pedalo incident, in which he was said to have been drinking heavily following the team’s defeat by New Zealand, and had to be rescued after falling off a pedalo in shallow water. He was duly suspended from the following match and stripped of his vice-captaincy.

Despite a public apology, it was an episode that cast some doubt over English cricket’s golden boy. When he was good, it seemed, he could be very good — England’s new Botham; but his propensity for drunken antics and continual time away due to injury meant that when he was bad, he was awful.

There has been some cause for trepidation — before the start of the first Test of the current Ashes series, during a team tour of World War I sites in France, he failed to turn up for a coach trip to the trenches near Ypres the morning after a team dinner. Whether this was due to alcohol consumption, or the “alarm clock issue” offered as the official explanation, is unclear.

Sitting a little uneasily in his manager’s office complex in Cheshire (north-west England), Flintoff seems unruffled by the challenge before him. “I’m excited,” he nods. “Just to be around the cricket again, bowling, feeling pain-free, and scoring a few runs with a bat as well.” His conversation, like that of many sportsmen, has a certain stiffness; he flexes his words like tired fingers.

Recently Flintoff had an operation on his knee, where he had torn a meniscus. It added to the four operations he has had on his ankle; “from a bone spur to releasing a tendon to fishing out bone fragments… I probably need a zip on the back of my ankle,” is how he puts it. “You’ve got to have some perspective on it as well. I’ve had a dicky ankle and a dicky knee but it’s not something that is life-threatening. And that’s behind me now, so I can concentrate on playing some cricket instead of being a professional rehabber.”

Is everything else working OK, I ask. “Yeah, thanks,” he says, and laughs sheepishly.

Born in Preston 31 years ago, Flintoff grew up in a cricket-mad family: his father played on Saturday afternoons, his brother Chris joined him, and his mother made the teas. “So from an early age I was being pushed around the boundary, playing at the side,” he recalls. But he never rebelled against it, save for a brief flirtation with chess. “I played for Lancashire, which is bizarre really. I had a teacher at primary school, and it was almost like something out of a film where you had this school on an estate and you had these kids coming to play chess in their lunchtime.”

Flintoff’s brother even played chess for England. “I was more of a maverick player, no real forward planning, just moved the pieces,” he smiles. “I’ve not played for years. I think the last time I played was against Mike Atherton.”

He still lives nearby, with his wife, Rachael, and their three children, Holly, Corey and Rocky. He talks warmly of his family — spending more time at home with them was, he says, the silver lining of all the time clouded by injury.

In 2006, he prompted something of a discussion when he decided not to return from the Test series in India for the birth of Corey. “I’ve seen two out of three births,” he says. “But I was in India and I asked Rachael and she said, ‘Stay.’ In hindsight, I maybe regret it. But if he asks later in life, we’ll say I was captaining England.” His son is already showing a fledgling interest in cricket: “Corey’s got his little bat and he likes playing,” Flintoff smiles. “But he likes football as well. And jigsaws.”

Earlier this year he and Rachael began setting up the Andrew Flintoff Foundation, a fund to raise money for the physiotherapy unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. “The one thing I have done a lot of is physiotherapy and rehabilitation, and I found it tough, even though I get to use all these nice gyms,” he explains. “So it will be a way to make the department more child-friendly, because, to be honest, doing this stuff hurts, and it’s trying to disguise where they are with a little fun.”

The foundation, he adds, will be launched with a star-studded dinner in London, featuring performances from indie band Razorlight and impressionist Rory Bremner, as well as Flintoff’s cricket colleagues, including Shane Warne and Vaughan.

Charity dinners aside, he says he rarely socialises with other famous sports stars. “I’ve been invited to a lot of things and I’ve met a few people, but no,” he mumbles, plainly a touch embarrassed. “I’ve got a lot of friends I don’t see enough of through being away and playing, and I’d like to see more of them, not meet new people.” He smiles. “I’m happy with my mates.”

Particularly, he is happy with his mates from the Lancashire team. “It’s like a second home, Old Trafford. Even when I’m not playing I’ll go and sit in the dressing room for a day. I love it.” He starts laughing. “Dressings rooms are like no place on earth. You stick grown men together and the banter’s constant. They banter about anything, anything that you can get on somebody.” What do they have on you, I ask. He blinks and swallows a smile. “Nothing,” he says.

If there is anything anyone does have on Flintoff, he would prefer not to know. “I don’t read the paper every day or worry about what anyone’s saying,” he says.

It is a tactic he has developed over the years, initially as a way of dealing with the constant speculation over his weight and his injuries, and then as a method of blocking out the commotion over the Ashes win.

Flintoff’s life has changed considerably since the 2005 Ashes. “We were put in a position that was foreign to all of us. We were probably regarded in some ways as not just cricketers — which is what I always wanted to be,” he adds, in case the matter were in doubt, “and what I want to carry on doing. For all the things that go on, on the field and enjoying the crowd and everything, that’s great, but then I just want to go home and lock my door and see my family and go out for a pint with my mates.”

But there must have been a time when it all seemed quite alluring? “Of course you get invited to more and more things, which I had a look at for a while. It’s not for me, that, to be honest.

I just want to play cricket, to get some runs and take some wickets,” he says, returning, as ever, to the cricket. At one point, however, he and Rachael did consent to a photo-spread in Hello! magazine — a decision he now regrets. “It was all me getting dressed and told what to wear and… not me at all. There was a lot of demand for things and we thought if we just did something, it’d put an end to it. But it didn’t really work out like that.”

Indeed, if anything, the media attention only intensified. “We were all in the same boat,” he says of the England team after the 2005 win, though eventually concedes that he perhaps was its focus. “And Kevin (Pietersen) as well,” he says, as if he has been hauled up in class and is desperately looking for allies. “The two of us. And to have people hanging around, following you everywhere you go, it’s not very nice to be honest with you. I’m sure if the team do well and perform this time, it will happen again. The difference is that I’ll probably be in a better position to deal with it.”

In 2005, it was all a bit distracting. Does he believe it affected the team? “You’d like to think not, but it possibly did,” he admits quietly. “We went to Pakistan and we lost the series against them. So I think in some ways it must have done. I think if we had our time again we’d have been better prepared for that trip.”

He is in no rush to return to the captaincy. “The hard part is going back to your room at night and trying to switch off,” he explains. “As a player I can do that; as the captain, I couldn’t. And having to bat and having to bowl and do the captain’s job… that was just a bit too much.”

In the last few years, Flintoff has arguably been part of a subtle shift in the way the British public views cricket; the game is now inching its way out of the preserve of the middle classes, in part because of the introduction of the shorter, swifter Twenty20 cricket.

“I think the perception of cricket is changing,” Flintoff nods, “especially with Twenty20. The tournament that’s just finished was an unbelievable success, there was a real excitement about it.”

Did cricket desperately need to change its image? “Ummm,” he says, and stews for a moment. “I don’t know about ‘desperately’, but I think it came at a good time. You see the audiences who are watching Twenty20 and a lot of them are kids. I’m all for the purist and the longer form of the game, but the future is with the 10-year-olds, and we’ve got to get them excited about cricket.”

He is not concerned, he insists with a laugh and a shake of the head, that cricket will never reach the extravagant levels of football. “The money’s got more and more but I don’t think we’ll end up with a Ronaldo situation where they buy a cricketer for GBP80 million.”

The fact that cricketers are not remunerated on the scale of Premier League football players perhaps means that they are regarded more affectionately by the public, I suggest. “I think it’s important that you look at cricket and rugby on a par; that the players do seem accessible, people can identify with them,” Flintoff says. “And that’s something that I think we can’t lose, that’s something that the game’s built around.”

This is maybe why the hard-drinking ways of the England cricket team, and Flintoff in particular, are treated with some benevolence, rather than the eye-rolling that greets news of the nation’s footballers falling out of nightclubs with glamour models. Does he think people can identify with the idea of a group of lads out for some ale more than the sight of millionaire footballers in designer labels heading to Mahiki? “To where?” he asks gruffly. Mahiki, I tell him, the nightclub in London. “Is it?” he wonders, with vague befuddlement. “Cricketers have a night out, there’s a time for everything,” he concludes, “but if you’re doing nothing wrong, I can’t imagine you’d get any stick for it.”

This seems a good time to mention the pedalo. “Ah, right,” he says stiltedly. “This is an urban myth — I never actually got on it,” he says.

“I don’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story, but yes, it was a bizarre thing that happened, and as you can imagine not one that I’m particularly proud of. I’ve missed a lot of games for England through injury but to get banned from one, in the World Cup especially, was probably one of my lowest points.”

Does he remember how that night started? He looks at his knees. “It started with a loss against New Zealand and the rest of it was what it was,” he says. “To be honest, I can’t remember all the ins and outs. It’s not something I particularly want to go into or dig up.

At the time I did a press conference and I dealt with the consequences, and it gets mentioned every now and then… as I say I’m not particularly happy about it but you’ve got to move on.”

Moving on meant keeping his mind on the cricket, not the beer or the pedalos or the open-top buses or the Hello! spreads. “One of the things I want to do is perform for England,” he says, gladdened by the shift in the conversation. “And that’s never changed, and never will. So I work hard at what I do, whether it’s in the gym or in practice or on the field. That’s not going to change.” And it’s an attitude, he insists, he will be taking with him to the field. “The desire,” he says, “is there now more than ever.”

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