|Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams comes to BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Tuesday, 5 July at 20:00 BST.|
Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff says you have to be either “lucky or privileged” to play elite men’s cricket in England.
And that’s something the former national team captain wanted to address as part of a new three-part BBC series called Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams.
Flintoff, 44, was once one of the world’s best all-rounders. He was named man of the series in England’s successful 2005 Ashes campaign and became a national icon for his phenomenal ability and exuberant personality.
But he said cricket was “not on the radar” for anyone around him when he was growing up, attending a state school in Preston.
“At school, everyone got stick for something,” he told BBC Sport. “For me, it was because I played cricket.”
In this new series, the Top Gear presenter returns to his home city in Lancashire to set up a cricket team and encourage local working-class boys to get involved.
It’s not an easy sell.
“They think cricket’s played by posh people and they think it’s boring,” Flintoff says during the first episode.
The young men he meets echo that.
“You would never find council-estate kids playing cricket,” says 15-year-old Ray.
In the last Ashes, two thirds of the England men’s squad were privately educated. In this TV series, we are told the same is true of almost half of the current men’s Test side. It’s an issue the sport has been wrestling with.
Flintoff says “it isn’t a reflection of society” – and that’s backed up by figures suggesting the percentage of the wider UK population who are privately educated is about 7%.
- Watch Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Tuesday, 5 July at 20:00 BST
‘It was evident this was a very different life’
Flintoff’s love of cricket came from his father Colin – a plumber, who was second team captain at local club Dutton Forshaw.
But cricket was not played at his school.
“Everyone played football,” he said. “I played football for the school and played for a club as well – just for acceptance, more than anything, but all I wanted to do was play cricket.”
And it was playing cricket that gave Flintoff the opportunity to meet people from very different socio-economic backgrounds.
According to a 2019 Government report, of the 12 local authorities that fall within the Lancashire County Council administrative boundary, Preston has the highest number of people classed as “employment and income-deprived”.
Flintoff says: “I’d go to play in places like Harrow. It was evident that this was a very different life.”
As he progressed through the game, Flintoff shared dressing rooms with lots of players who had come through private schools.
He said he became aware of some differences.
“There’s good people from all backgrounds,” he said. “It wasn’t that that was an issue. It was just a case of the amount of kit people had, the opportunities they had, how much easier it was for some people to make it.”
Flintoff was offered scholarships to more than one private school but declined, preferring to remain close to home and to keep playing men’s cricket, rather than have to take part in weekend school competitions.
‘Cricket is an ideal vehicle for bringing people together.’
Flintoff said he decided to return to Preston for his current project because he believed that was where he could make most difference.
“I want to get a group of kids together who have never played, never had the opportunity to play,” he says in the series.
After gathering a team, Flintoff not only has to coach them but also deal with several off-field issues.
“My role kept changing,” Flintoff, who has four children, told BBC Sport. “I felt like headmaster, coach, parent, social worker, all rolled into one.”
Ben, 18, is part of the squad Flintoff assembles. He has been homeless and lives in accommodation provided by a charity but struggles to juggle training with college. He eventually secures a job.
Sean, 15, has been excluded from a number of schools and has behavioural issues. In the second episode, he has to sit out training after breaking a knuckle punching someone, but during the series he gets a place on a plumbing course.
Flintoff said he felt very proud of the things both young men achieved during the time he was with them.
Another member of the team is Adnan – a young man living with foster parents in Preston. He has travelled from Afghanistan and is seeking asylum in the UK. Adnan is the team’s star player, and has ambitions to play for England.
Although not directly addressed in the series, cricket’s ongoing racism scandal has led some to say the sport is institutionally racist.
Speaking about the team he has assembled, Flintoff says he believes cricket can be “an ideal vehicle for bringing people together”.
And reflecting on the team he played in with his dad, he adds: “You had the Patel family of Pakistani origin, a West Indian man, and then you had us – a white family from Preston.
“Everyone in the dressing room was just working together and enjoying one another’s company. Cricket can be a great leveller – everyone working in the same direction.”
Flintoff went on to say the series showed young people from different communities working together.
“You see there what cricket can do,” he said.
Despite what Flintoff told us were “tricky moments”, he believes he was able to relate to the young men he was working with more easily than others may have.
“First and foremost, I’m effectively one of them,” Flintoff said.
“They’re very similar to the kids I went to school with. I feel comfortable around them. They push you a little bit at first when they see the car you drive or whatever, but once you explain which school you went to – a school that’s quite notorious around Preston – you gain their respect.”
‘It’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. We just want a more level playing field’
Beyond this project, what does Flintoff believe can be done to make cricket less elitist?
“Accessible is probably a better word than elitist,” he said.
“It’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. We just want a more level playing field.”
In 2019, governing body the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) established a strategy called Inspiring Generations it hopes will “inspire a whole generation to say that ‘cricket is a game for me’.”
Flintoff believes affordability is a major issue.
“The thought of going and spending £100 on a cricket bat for a kid, £40 for pads, £100 to join a club and pay subs, it’s a stretch for a lot of people,” he says.
During the series, Flintoff invests £50,000 of his own money to help build a club with proper facilities, while lobbying the local council to invest £200,000 of public money.
Amid a cost of living crisis, he acknowledges it’s a tough ask.
“Every time you turn on the television, there’s another part of society that needs money,” he says.
Flintoff told BBC Sport he did not claim to have all of the answers.
But he said role models are important – and the current Test side is playing an exciting brand of attacking cricket under new coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes.
“I think the most import thing is a successful England team,” Flintoff said.