CRICKET gave him sporting fame and helped establish him as one of Britain’s most popular television stars – but Freddie Flintoff believes his working-class upbringing nearly prevented him from succeeding in the game.
The former England ace, who directs the documentary Field Of Dreams to help underprivileged youngsters get into the sport, knows first-hand that cricket is considered a noble pastime for private school children
He told the latest edition of the Radio Times: “Cricket just wasn’t on the radar in either of the state schools I went to.
“I got so many bats for playing cricket, even bullied, it was almost like Billy Elliot – except he had it easier being a ballet dancer.
“I played football more for acceptance than for fun.”
Freddie, 44, who grew up in Preston, represented Lancashire and England in a distinguished career, winning the Ashes in 2005, becoming captain of his country and making 79 international friendlies.
His father, a plumber, was the captain of a local cricket tee.
But when Freddie, who is now co-host of BBC1 motor show Top Gear, started playing the game in the late 80’s and early 90’s, he could see the class differences.
He said: “I had my racket which I bought for £21.50 and my aunt Joan bought my pads from Hamleys toy shop.
“You show up and play against all these private school kids who have all the gear.
“I got this weird pleasure from hitting her.
“But if you look at the English team, when we started this process (of the documentary) a year ago, it was 60:40 from public school to public school children, which on the surface sounds good.
“But keep in mind that only seven percent of children in the population go to private school. That makes it elitist.”
And he’s convinced that since childhood, the problem has gotten worse, not better.
Announcing the BBC1 documentary last year, he said: “Cricket is more elitist per capita than rugby, rowing and the House of Lords.
“We must do something to get working-class young people back to playing our national summer sport.
“I really hope this series can show that with a little time and coaching anyone can learn to love cricket and take advantage of the opportunities that have been offered to me.”
In Field Of Dreams, Freddie takes 11 boys from his hometown of Preston and tries to convince them that cricket is a worthwhile endeavor they can be successful at.
It is a “passion project” to give something back to his beloved sport and to improve the children’s life chances.
He takes no royalties on the show and is also plunking down £50,000 of his own money on the project.
But it’s off to a shaky start, as father-of-four Freddie is unsure if the youngsters will even show up.
When they finally do, he likens the chaos of their first training session to “a damn zoo.”
I got so many bats for playing cricket, even bullied, it was almost like Billy Elliot – only he had it easier as a ballet dancer.
He’s stuck with them, however, not least because many haven’t had the best starts in life.
Among them are asylum seekers, young people with behavioral problems and late risers.
Freddie wanted to convince the wannabe team that he not only supports them, but is one of them.
He said: “In the beginning the kids saw me as a guy who played cricket or worked on Top Gear.
“But when I told them where I grew up, where we lived, what I used to do and where I went to school, it was almost like it changed them.
“I’ve seen programs like this on TV before and people come in and out and they arrive when the cameras are there, looking good and leaving.
“But I wanted to get to know these kids, spend time and almost be friends with them.”
After retiring from cricket 12 years ago due to a long string of injuries, Freddie found fame and fortune on television.
He’s always been known for his cheeky sense of humor and his everyman image, which sometimes spilled over into drunken and controversial antics.
But it was part of an image that made him a natural choice for television producers.
He was hired as the team captain for the Sky panel show A League Of Their Own
He has also hosted reality challenge shows The Games and Don’t Rock The Boat and won the Australian version of I’m A Celebrity. . . Get me out of here! in 2015.
We must do something to get working-class young people back in our national summer sport.
He has turned to sports commentary, starred in the musical Fat Friends and appeared in ads for everything from supermarkets to oversized menswear.
After marrying his wife Rachael in 2005, he tamed his hellish ways and quit drinking and got fit enough to dabble in celebrity boxing for a while.
With his more mature outlook, he has written five books about his life and has appeared in documentaries in which he has spoken candidly about his struggles with depression and bulimia.
His profile may have reached new heights in 2019 when he was named co-host of the Top Gear reboot alongside Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris.
No wonder his company accounts show him earning over £1million a year and his business is worth close to £6million
But he says his successes have often been driven by a fear of failure – something he learned as a cricketer.
He once said, “What I do will never be enough. Looking back on my cricket career I can tell you all my failures but not too many successes.
“Some people might think that’s a little weird, but that was the only thing that made me strive to be better.
“I remember getting out in every game. I can’t really tell you which fours and sixs I hit.”
Although returning to his hometown to play cricket for the documentary proved to be a huge challenge for Freddie, that certainly hasn’t stopped him from coming home.
He said: “Wherever I go, at work and where I live now, I find it very difficult to feel comfortable around people and I realized that’s the place where I feel most comfortable , obviously outside my family, is cricket and preston.
“My youngest child’s name is Preston and I want to move back there one day.”
- Field Of Dreams airs on BBC1, Tuesday 5 July at 8pm.
https://www.the-sun.com/sport/5652839/bullied-playing-cricket-billy-elliot-ballet-freddie-flintoff/ Billy Elliot had an easier time with school bullies than I did because I loved cricket, not football, says Freddie Flintoff