FWithin five minutes of this interview, I tell Andrew Flintoff that I know he is lying. Flintoff, who is part of the Sky commentary team for the Hundred, is talking about how happy he is to be involved in cricket again after having spent the last few years working on Top Gear, Lord of the Fries, Australian Ninja Warrior, Cannonball, A League. on his own and I’m a celebrity … Get me out of here! among other shows.
“I haven’t played much cricket since I retired because I never thought it was the right time,” he says, “but all I ever wanted to grow up was a cricketer. It’s a world that I feel very comfortable in, and a world that I haven’t been in for a while, so coming back now has been very nice. “
On August 25, 2019, when Ben Stokes was approaching Australian bowlers at Headingley, Flintoff was in Ibiza, filming A League of Their Own. “I was on this road trip with Jamie Redknapp, Alan Carr and Romesh Ranganathan. And we were going to jump off a cliff. So I’m there in a pair of shorts, hoping to jump into the sea for no apparent reason, and the camera guys who are cricket fans were giving me updates on the Stokes hit. And I say to myself, ‘Is this what you’ve come to?
During the lockdown, Flintoff was also watching Sky’s cricket coverage and thinking “how cool is it and how much fun people are working on it, and I almost felt like I was missing it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do, but I thought, ‘I’d like a little bit of that in my life.’ So he signed up for what he says is his first real involvement in his old sport since he came out of retirement to play a season in Australia’s Big Bash League in 2015.
That’s when I tell him he’s not being straight. Because I know that he has returned to play for his old club, St Annes. “Oh,” Flintoff says with a face, “I knew this was going to come up.”
It was a match, against Morecambe in the Northern Premier League. Flintoff’s 15-year-old son Corey also played in it. “They don’t have a pro this year and Thursday night before the first game they were fighting for the numbers, and I said, ‘Look, if you’re stuck, I’ll put my team in the car.’ I showed up at Morecambe and I’m playing. So the captain says, ‘Where do you want to hit?’ I said, ‘I’d like to go last, please.’
“He tried to convince me to go to number 4 and in the end we agreed to number 7, which was probably too high a pair. I got three and then I left one off the left arm caster wheel and it was an arm ball and the stump was cut off so I went down as fast as I could. “
For all his carefree swagger, Flintoff was too good, too recently, to enjoy playing without preparing properly. “If I’m playing I like to practice, but I would go out to hit without expecting anything at all, thinking: ‘If I do something well, it will be an absolute coincidence,’ and I didn’t like being in that position. “
Some people would have done it just to play on the same side as one of their kids, but Flintoff says, “I’m always worried that it will put more pressure on them, when I just want them to get on and enjoy themselves. . Anyway, after a week at work, my good time has turned into sitting in a chair watching my boys play. I really enjoy that, much more than the idea of not being able to move for two or three days afterwards if I play myself. “
Flintoff makes no mention of it, but agreed to become St Annes president as well. It’s good to think of him going back to his cricket roots like this, after all these years watching him walk away and get into game shows and TV stunts. Speaking of which, I ask him what his friends from St. Annes of the Hundred think. I know that if their opinions are somewhat similar to those heard in other clubs, the answers will not please the PR that is hanging around the corner.
“People say a lot of different things,” he says. “I guess that’s to be expected. Many kids are eager to see England players, international players on television, and then traditionalists come along who might need a change of mind. Because cricket doesn’t like change, right? Let’s be honest. When I played I hated change because I liked my routine. They still do it. So I understand why other people do it too. “
Remember 2003, the last time the England and Wales Cricket Board launched a new format. “They brought all the players to Edgbaston for a presentation on T20, and the reaction was not good. I remember saying to Glen Chapple, ‘Are we going to Brighton for a three-hour game? I’m going to have a week off. But then when it started, it was brilliant and year after year it got more competitive, and there was more at stake, so the attitude towards that quickly changed. “
This time he thinks players are buying him from the start. If Flintoff is right, it won’t be the only difference between the two competitions. Twenty20 cost around £ 500,000 to set up, originally lasted about two weeks and was still a county competition. The Hundred has cost nearly £ 50 million a year, will last a month and is among eight new teams based in the city.
That last part has certainly not been well received by traditionalists. “That’s an adjustment for me too,” says Flintoff. “I’m not going to lie, I played for Lancashire, I wanted to be a Lancashire player since I was nine years old and I still love going there to see them. So I understand what they are saying. And I think it comes from a good place. People really love and care about cricket. They don’t want to lose it or they don’t want it to be unrecognizable from the game they know. So we still have a responsibility to the counties.
“I have a box at Old Trafford and I watch them play T20 with my family and friends and I love it. But for me it is neither the one nor the other. I can support Lancashire and I love it, and I can also enjoy Manchester in the Hundred. I don’t really take it in isolation. It’s part of the cricket landscape. “
Flintoff is a good salesman, warm and straightforward. You can see why Sky hired him. “When you talk to people a bit about this and explain it to them, they get it,” he says. “The conversations I have with people are: ‘Yes, they can be called Manchester, but you’re going to see Jos Buttler and Kagiso Rabada play.’ In Hampshire they have David Warner and Jofra Archer and in Wales they have Kieron Pollard and Jonny Bairstow. So the names may be different, but they have the best players playing for them. “
At least that was the idea. But the Cricket Control Board in India has refused to release its players and the practicalities of holding the tournament during a global pandemic mean that Warner, Rabada and many other foreign players have withdrawn.
Still, Flintoff is optimistic. “I think it will be a great introduction to the game,” he says. “It is a place to start. I remember I was on the Graham Norton show years ago trying to explain cricket rules to Jennifer LopezI mean, where do you start? You know what I mean? But the Hundred is slightly different. You know where you are with that. There are 100 balls and the one with the most runs wins. And I know you can divide it into five, ten and all that, but it’s easy to explain. “
That story speaks for itself about Flintoff’s star power. There hasn’t been anyone like him since he ended, not even Stokes (who readily admits he’s a better player), because Flintoff played in 2005 on Channel Four. The best argument for the Hundred, oddly enough, may be one that he really can’t make, because he’s working for Sky. He will put the sport back on free-to-air television.
Complainers don’t like … “Well,” Flintoff interrupts. “They haven’t seen it yet, so you can’t not like something you haven’t seen, right? But I appreciate that people have a lot of opinions about it. That’s good, because they’ll watch it to see if they’re right, if we’re talking about ‘exits’ instead of ‘windows’. Then they’ll see who’s on the show and that’s a chance to change their mind. So there’s little point in trying to persuade them now. The show will do that. “
Andrew Flintoff is part of the Sky Sports team for the Hundred this summer. Look at every ball from the competition live on Sky Sports The Hundred.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism