If Andrew Flintoff knocked on our front door, I’d pass out with excitement; it was in this house, after all, that my beloved domestic colleague and I watched Flintoff and England win the Ashes in 2005, a victory that seemed to bless its every brick (we’d just moved in). But in Preston, where he grew up, his celebrity is not, it seems, a given. On the city’s Broadfield Estate, no one is interested in cricket, a sport that’s “boring” and only for posh people. “Fair play to the lad,” says one boy, having discovered, via Google, that Flintoff’s wife is “well fit”. About his prowess on the pitch, on the other hand, this teenager is rather less excited. “What’s an MBE?” he asks, frowning at his mobile.
Ordinarily, series in which famous people co-star with mere civilians are not for me. But Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams (Flintoff’s nickname is Freddie) is the most stirring thing I’ve seen on television in years: a show I can’t watch without crying. It says so much that’s painfully true about Britain in 2022, doing the work of any number of earnest documentaries about neglect and poverty – and yet, its focus is really the ineffable greatness of sport: the way it can bring people together when all else is lost; its particular qualities of transfiguration. Doubtless, it has a good director, and efficient producers. In the end, though, the reason it is both so successful and so inspiriting is Flintoff, who has known good times as well as bad, and who speaks to everyone he meets in the same straightforward, kind, rather wry manner. In another life, he would have been the best sort of teacher: a man who can control the zoo that is a certain kind of classroom without ever needing to raise his voice.
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The series’ premise is that cricket is not only for an elite few (unlike Flintoff, who went to state school, half the current England men’s Test team were privately educated). His plan, then, is to put together a side of boys who’ve never played the game before. This isn’t easy. Having announced his intention via a series of notices posted in local chippies, there’s some nervousness on day one: the teenagers arrive, in dribs and drabs, 20 minutes late. But no matter. He’d rather they were late, wearing ear pods and eating crisps, than not here at all – a stance he maintains throughout. Flintoff wants them to enjoy themselves, and this requires him not always to be on their case.
Who are they? Some, like Ammar, who arrived in the UK from Pakistan six years ago, are quiet and eager. Others, like Sean, a school refusenik who spends his free time fighting and drinking vodka, are noisy and disruptive. Ethan has been bullied. Ben was, until recently, homeless. Adnan, a refugee from Afghanistan, travelled to Preston alone in the back of a lorry. Several are overweight. Flintoff, having listened to their stories, is momentarily quiet. But pity isn’t for him. He prefers gentle sarcasm – to make them laugh – and unstinting encouragement. They’re rubbish players, at least to begin with, but when someone takes a catch, the joy is infectious. As he comes to realise, with this lot, camaraderie – the antidote to their unexpressed, even unrealised, loneliness – counts for more than runs (though runs still count for quite a lot).
I’m not going to tell you all that happens. But here’s a taster. For their first ever game, Flintoff takes them to the Lake District to play Patterdale Cricket Club, the average age of whose players is 65. The lads don’t want to wear Freddie’s beloved whites. One pulls his cable knit on top of his hoodie. Another stretches a beanie over his helmet. Naturally, they lose, but not too badly, and afterwards, there’s a good tea, better than a sandwich from Tesco.
Out on the pitch, you see something spark inside them, a pilot light springing to life, and it’s brilliant. Wickets are great. A one-handed catch – even a two-handed catch – is bliss. But watching a boy tonk a ball over the boundary for the first time in his life, his new friends cheering him on, is something else entirely. First rapture, then recognition. A reminder of what investment in human beings really means; of how transformative such commitment can be, and how relatively inexpensive.
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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson