As part of a remarkable series of interviews exploring the variously challenged lives of former cricketers, Andrew Flintoff opens up to Felix White about dealing with life when the game is over.
Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff is one of the most beloved England cricketers of the century. Most famous for his performances in the 2005 Ashes, for which he won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, he played 79 Tests, scoring 3,845 runs at 31.77 with the bat and took 226 wickets at 32.78 with the ball.
Now carving out a career in television, I meet Freddie at the offices of MS Saatchi, his management company. He is in another meeting when I arrive and gestures through the transparent office windows on arrival that he’ll be five. When the meeting ends, he takes me into a smaller office, adorned with a big cardboard cut-out of himself. We are stopped an hour in as he has to be taken to a television awards show that evening, which he has expressed a keen disinterest in being involved in at least twice during our interview.
I was keen to speak to Fred as both Kyle Hogg and Mark Butcher had mentioned how hard retirement had hit him. Butch had also cited Freddie, accurately, as the last really marketable personality, to take the game outside of itself. I wondered whether the man English cricket had relied upon to broaden its own horizons wanted in fact nothing more than to just be back inside it.
When he, at one point casting back on how he feels on his career, says, ‘I wasn’t the best’, I want to hug him and tell him, ‘No Freddie, you WERE the best!’ I’m struck by how lucid and well-structured his feelings about life after cricket are, and that he has reached some kind of place of painful and disarmingly honest acceptance with it. The revelation that the door to WWE is still open to him is somehow, for Fred, not that big a surprise, making him to my knowledge the cricketer that has come closest to wrestling The Undertaker in the history of the game.
I left school at 16, I’d started playing with Lancashire second team by then. I got my GCSEs and the initial plan was that I was going to go to college and see what happened. But I got offered a three-year contract, and that year I played a Lancashire second-team game and got paid 60 quid for a four-day game, plus 20 quid petrol money for my dad. It was only then that I realised that you got paid to play cricket. I didn’t realise you got paid. I didn’t know what people did for jobs, but when I got the money I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’. I never really got past the thought of playing cricket.
You do something for so long that it almost becomes you. Cricket for me did that. For a while I looked for ways to replace the adrenaline. I did a show for ITV4 where I did 21 extreme sports around America, I did the boxing, I spent time in Botswana in the bush. I realised eventually that, as much as I tried, nothing’s ever going to replace that feeling of walking out with Lancashire or England. Standing there wearing the badge, waiting for your first ball. All the nerves. You feel alive. I’ll never be as passionate about anything else as the way I was, or possibly am, about cricket.
A lot of cricketers finish and say they don’t miss cricket. I think they’re just lying. It’s impossible to want to do something that much, to spend all those hours practising, then to say, ‘Oh, I’m done’. I think it’s a defence mechanism. I think people are really bad, and I’ve learnt this about myself, with being honest about how they actually feel. I still dream about playing cricket most nights. I’ve made another comeback in my dream and something’s gone wrong on my way to the ground or I’ve forgotten my bat or something. I still dream about it. That must be an admission of how much I do miss it. I’ll probably still be like that at 60.
I still dream about playing cricket most nights. I’ve made another comeback in my dream and something’s gone wrong on my way to the ground or I’ve forgotten my bat or something
As a player, what I thought I lacked in ability, I’d make up for in bravado. I looked at other people and thought, ‘You’re very good’. The early part of my career didn’t go that well, I didn’t work hard, I didn’t train and I blagged it. The second half, I blagged it in a different way. I got really fit, I got really strong and I prided myself on wanting to be involved in big situations. If I went into bat at 400-2, you might as well not bother. But stick me in there when we’re up against it, that’s what I enjoyed. I think even now, a kind of doggedness or stubbornness gets me through. If I want to do something, I have no fear of failure, but I have a fear of not trying.
Like the boxing, I talked myself into having a professional fight. I hate fighting. I didn’t even know if I could do it. I won. It was just my mouth though. I interviewed Barry McGuigan for a programme I did on depression. I hit the pads, just to tell my mates. I bumped into him again three months later. I said, as a joke, ‘Is that about my fight?’ He said, ‘Do you actually want a fight?’ Three weeks later I was in a ring in Essex getting beat up by a 6ft 7in Nigerian called Biggie.
But the initial thing wasn’t to box. I pitched an idea to Sky to wrestle. My character was going to be called ‘Fred’, just Fred. I’d written this treatment up, which was exactly the same as the boxing except I was going to fight The Undertaker in Manchester. So, I presented it to Sky, who loved it. They put me in touch with WWE, Vince McMahon. I was living in Dubai, I got a trainer in to bulk up and I went to wrestling school. Me and my missus got flown out to Tampa. We turn up at this unit where the academy is. I got out of the car, under the assumption I was big and this giant walked past me and I was thinking, ‘Oh, f***ing hell’. I got in the ring and for the first four hours all I was doing was running, bouncing off a rope, and getting thrown. It got to the point where I was so tired that I’m doing that move where you go under their legs and they jump and I couldn’t get up, I just kept going, went straight into the apron, smashed my face on the apron. My nose went. Got up, kept going. I ended up breaking two ribs. I was just in shorts and t-shirts, no boots or anything.
Three weeks later I was in a ring in Essex getting beat up by a 6ft 7in Nigerian called Biggie
They have acting classes to create a character. They say, ‘If you’re good or bad, we’re not bothered, just get a reaction’. So I’m watching 40 of them do their routines to camera in this little ring and they do their chat. They say, ‘Right you’re up next!’ I was like, ‘What? They’ve been practising all week!’
So I got in the ring with the mic. I’ve told them all how hard I was and what I was going to do to them. Foaming at the mouth. It’s supposed to last two minutes. I ended up going around the room, pointing at people, just rinsing people, and he’s winding me up saying you’re two minutes are up and I’m thinking, ‘No mate, I’m not done!’ Ended up doing 15 minutes.
We thought that was the end of it and went on holiday, came back home. I got a reply, saying they’d seen me move in the ring, I used to be a gymnast as a kid so I’ve got a couple of flips that I’d shown to camera. They said, ‘You can’t do your documentary because we’re very secretive about how we do it, but we want you to join us.’ This was Vince McMahon, he’d seen it all, sent an email through to WWE in England and it lands in this office, saying they want me to join the roster. They said that usually you spend three years in the academy, but we can fast-track you over 18 months for Royal Rumbles and all that… the money was obscene. But I mean, no… They left the door open, saying you peak between 35 and 45, so if it’s a choice between WWE and Celebrity Big Brother one day, I’ll be in my pants… I loved wrestling when I was little. I could have been one, I’m glad I didn’t.
You can put obsession into the wrong places. I don’t drink now. When I finished playing I drunk maybe a bit more than I should have done. I drunk too much when I played at times. I do get obsessive.
Even to the point now, I’m probably eating too much chocolate. Can’t help myself. My work now is a hard one to be obsessive about, but with cricket or sport, it’s measurable, I knew where I was. If I play well and we win, I’m playing the next game, and I can have it all in the diary and it’s up to me. If I get dropped it’s my fault.
I never had friends who were girls, I didn’t know any gay men, there are all these sections of society that you just don’t bother with because you’re so insular
Coming to the end, it’s almost as if you’re in denial. You look back and it’s quite pathetic, because you think cricket is the most important thing in the world. You get drawn in, and the mood swings you have with it, even to the point when former agents I was with would say, ‘We’ll take all the problems off you so you can just concentrate on your cricket’. But hold on a minute, that’s life. I want to know how to pay my own gas bill, I want to know how to insure a car. I can book a holiday, you know! Cricket’s going that way a bit, football went there a long time ago, where the players come out and they’re useless. You can’t even be trusted with your passport, you give it to your manager. It’s just bizarre.
I look back at the amount of time you end up wasting as a cricketer. Whether you are travelling, whether you are watching DVDs with Steve Harmison for the fifteenth time. He’d have a sleeve of DVDs and we’d watch Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, The Royle Family, Only Fools And Horses. He brought the complete collection of Lovejoy and I drew the line there. If I’d used that time more constructively, I could have had about four degrees. You never think it’s going to end, you’re just living in that moment. I never had friends who were girls, I didn’t know any gay men, there are all these sections of society that you just don’t bother with because you’re so insular in what you’re doing.
I started to do a couple of things on TV while I was still playing. I went on Cricket AM on Sky, which wasn’t a great show, but I had a segment on it. I took various challenges on, anything from bingo calling to Elvis impersonating in Blackpool. I think that did me a few favours with being in front of a camera. Most of the stuff I’ve done have been my own ideas. Even when I played for Chennai in cricket, I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t mean anything. Lancashire and England, those two teams, that’s all I want. TV’s the same.
Entertainment TV was never the plan, I’m not even sure it still is. I always feel like I’m going to get found out
I come up with an idea and just write it down. I’ll be honest with you, this was never the plan. To do entertainment TV was never the plan, I’m not even sure it still is, I don’t know what the plan is. I always feel that I’m fudging my way through it and I’m going to get found out any minute. The worst thing is, when you’re 16, you’re meant to feel like that. You go into a dressing room and you’ve got Fairbrother, Atherton – Wasim Akram’s taking me under his wing. I didn’t say anything for a year or two, you’re quite unsure of yourself. To have that again at 31, going into situations which were alien, going in front of a TV camera, going round America doing my own TV show, I felt 16 again. I know it’s not going to last forever, it’s TV. I’ve got a couple of business interests too. I’ve got a property development business for apartments and hotels.
I started off playing cricket because I liked it. I wanted to play for Lancashire and England. I never said I wanted to score this amount of runs or whatever. You can look at my career in two ways. The cynics will say that I underachieved. But I look at where I came from, schools on council estates, where you’d get beat up for playing cricket. It’s even to the point where you went out and got sledged by the Aussies and you’d be, ‘Hang on a minute, men dressed in whites, look at you! Come back to Preston, come and have a look here…’ I achieved more than I ever thought I was going to. I look back and think, ‘Yeah, I did alright’.
Sometimes I would say to myself, ‘What a dick – it’s only retiring from cricket, there’s nothing wrong with me’.
I’m not ill, you see all these people, battling illness or going through real hardship, then you feel guilty that you’re struggling mentally or whatever it may be. That makes it worse, because you feel guilty for it too. It’s just living life differently now, but I’m enjoying it.
Now that I’m not a professional cricketer, I’m a better person. My perception of life is better. Everyone says you need to be selfish to be a sportsman and I always thought I wasn’t. I wasn’t in the traditional sense. I always put the team first, it was always about winning, not personal performance. But where I was selfish was, if we won, I’d go out with the lads. And if we lost, I’d go back to the missus and have a sulk on. When you’re playing a Test match, everyone’s on egg shells around you. I think that’s where I was selfish. I think competition brings the best out of me but also the worst. It’s win at all costs. Now I don’t have that in my life, I shy away from confrontation. I think I’m a lot easier to be around.