Interview: Andrew Flintoff reflects on his career

Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff. Picture: Contributed
Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff. Picture: Contributed
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ANDREW ‘Freddie’ Flintoff has battled booze, bulimia and depression in his time, and his show at this year’s 
Edinburgh Fringe covers the lot with gruff charm and good comic timing. In real life, though, the beer monster of old has become a much more sober character

IN my previous life reporting on the Edinburgh Festival I never encountered one of its vast troupe of performers this early. At such an ungodly hour as 10am, many would have been only just getting back to their exorbitantly-let flats from the nightly bacchanal, so I’m not holding out much hope of Freddie Flintoff being anything like prompt.

Andrew Flintoff celebrates after England win the Ashes in 2005. Picture: Getty Images

Andrew Flintoff celebrates after England win the Ashes in 2005. Picture: Getty Images

Ah, but that’s the old Flintoff, the Freddie of myth and legend, who indulged in a 32-hour Ashes bender, piddled in the Downing Street rose garden – which some might argue was a better use for it than coalition-forming – and 
attempted to steer a pedalo right across the Caribbean Sea and, who knows, maybe all the way to his beloved Preston.

The new Freddie hasn’t had a drink for more than a year. “I just decided I’d probably had enough for one lifetime,” says the cricketing hero, now 37, when we meet bang on time at his hotel. “It’s strange being in a city where everyone seemed to be pissed but I reckon I’ve had my fill. I do these daft TV shows now and even though some are really daft it’s all still quite new to me and I want to be at my best for them. I’ve got a young family and I want to be ready for my kids first thing in the morning and not hungover. I’m looking after myself better than when I was playing – I’m actually fitter now. No, those days are gone, though I know that when the kids are older and they come across some photos of me from that time, I’ll have some explaining to do.”

The old Flintoff is commemorated in his Fringe show, 2nd Innings, which puts his podcast on to the stage. Sidekick Clyde Holcroft bowls him a couple of easy set-up questions and he smashes them out of the ground with tales of Viagra accidents, testicle-tickling masseurs and – most incredibly of all – how he got into current affairs reporting.

How has cricket come to this? The other day I caught a radio tribute to the late, great commentator Richie Benaud in which associates described how the master of minimalism would sometimes let two 30-minute shifts at the mic pass without uttering a single word. Now we have one of the sport’s finest talking about himself for an hour, with cricket hardly featuring at all. Maybe not a show for the Wisden aficionado, then.

But if 2nd Innings sounds self-indulgent, it’s not. Flintoff makes himself, the beer-monster he once was, the butt of all the jokes. His comic timing is good, the delivery similar to Peter Kaye in the way his cloggy northern voice breaks into schoolboyish expressions of astonishment. The crowd on the afternoon I was there – overmuscled, floppy-haired chaps resembling roadies for Mumford & Sons but plenty of women too because Freddie is quite hunky – loved the locker-room tales, and one or two in the hall were even Scottish.

“You’re right, it’s not a show for cricket scholars,” he says. “We’ve only performed it six times, yet I’ve spotted a few maybe expecting lots of facts and stats and just shaking their heads.” Flintoff is still getting his head round being a comedy star of Festival Edinburgh. “Last night after my show I went to see one of my mates, Kevin Day, who’s a proper comic and writes some of the material for A League of Their Own. He was in a little room and here’s me in this much bigger place. The only thing I ever wanted to do in life was play cricket, so at times like these I really have to pinch myself.”

The enormity of the Festival has knocked him for six, although he knows Edinburgh from his playing days. “One time I was captain of England and we came up to the Grange, a lovely ground, to play Scotland as a warm-up for the season. We were supposed to thrash you lot, but there was a bit of pressure on us because we’d already lost to Wales and the Scottish crowd were pretty feisty. To their credit they weren’t over the top. They put their point across about us English and it was good fun. But I still never went anywhere near the boundaries that day. I was captain so I ordered [Kevin] Pietersen out there. He had to listen to all their jokes about England but of course he’s not English. They didn’t have any South African material so I think they just called him a cock!”

Cross-border wind-ups, though, surely can’t have perturbed Flintoff after his unusual route into cricket. He was hooked on the game from the age of six when big brother Chris dragooned him into playing for Dutton Forshaws Under-14s who were a man short – even though going into bat in his hand-me-down Manchester United tracksuit he was out first ball.

At that point he was still Andrew, the nickname arriving much later courtesy of Fred Flintstone, the cartoon caveman klutz. He came from a cricketing family – his father, a British Aerospace production-line worker, was a keen Sunday player while Mum made the teas – but growing up in the middle of five council estates in Preston he had to be careful when he showed this.

“My school was pretty tough and I played football there so I would be accepted, to save myself a kicking. Cricket was deemed too posh where I came from and I’d never have risked walking home through the estates in my whites. My club played some of the posh schools. I’d have the cheapest kit but I loved those games. As soon as the posh lads opened their mouths and you heard their accents the stakes were raised. Then these schools tried to get me on scholarships but I wasn’t interested as I’d been playing against men since I was ten.”

Flintoff, because of his background, brawny charm and of course his brilliance with bat and ball, was hailed after 2005 for broadening cricket’s appeal and even by some for saving it. The fact he faced down leather spheres hurtling towards him at 90mph but was big enough to confess to being afraid of the dark only endeared him to his public some more. He shrugs and says credit and praise should be spread evenly round the team which won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years.

Before then, indeed, his own career needed saving. Enter Rachael Wools, who would become his wife and mother to his three children, Holly, Corey and Rocky. “When we met, it was a time in my life when I was pretty useless. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her. She was running her own business and pretty driven. That definitely rubbed off on me and I became more organised. Mind you, I think I’ve made her more laid-back, so we’ve been good for each other.”

Their romance, though, didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. On the day of their first date the News of the World published the considered musings of an ex-girlfriend. “‘Flintoff in bed was like his cricket,’ she said. ‘Hard, fast and short of length.’ Well, I was pleased she thought my bowling was fast.” Stressed out about the revelations before a later date, he asked a Scouse mate to acquire him some Viagra, only to pop three of the blue pills while waiting for his much-delayed girlfriend. “I was in a right pickle,” he laughs, and the next day there was a Test match to play. “That was the first and only time I never wore a box. I couldn’t get it to fit over me.”

Since we’ve reached this delicate region let’s deal with the masseur. His name was Amir and Flintoff can still picture him, or at least the too-small shorts and Green Flash he could see from his position face down on the table, when some recovery-time in Lahore went a bit weird. “I came outside and Adam Hollioake said: ‘Flick your balls, did he? Mine too.’”

Flintoff really will talk about anything, having battled booze, bulimia and depression in an eventful life. “I’ll be fine and suddenly I’ll feel the depression coming on,” he explains. “It can start with the smallest thing. Big things, a real crisis, I think I’m pretty good, but this little thing will just wallop me. I think I’m managing depression better now: when the mood comes I just try and sit it out. Getting fitter has helped and so has not drinking.”

The bulimia he dates from that low period when he wasn’t playing well and enjoying the post-match rather too much. “I was being ridiculed in the papers. There was a comparison story with a photo of me looking pretty big next to Lennox Lewis who was absolutely ripped. Lennox, the story said, had a reach of 52in or something. ‘Meanwhile Freddie just reaches for another pie.’

“How I reacted was to make myself sick. I would do it whenever I thought I’d eaten too much, then before long I was doing it more often. The crunch came when Rachael and I were on holiday in Dubai, having a meal in this amazing restaurant in a seven-star hotel. It cost me 300 quid, the portions were tiny, and there I was throwing it all up. I confessed everything to her and she sorted me out.”

We talk about how cricket has changed even in the short time since his great triumph, at the same time having a laugh about this week’s top sports story – footballer Jermain Defoe’s sits vacant ad for a PA whose duties would include helping in the creation of his global brand and stocking the fridge.

“Sportsmen are too pampered and too cosseted and that was even true of cricket for me,” he admits. “I became too dependent on the bubble the game created for the players.” Now that bubble has been reinforced, offering greater protection and indeed remoteness, and tours will involve massive support staff. Thus, never again will a groin-tweaked all-rounder have to submit to the less-than-tender mercies of an Amir. But he adds: “Cricket when I started was hardly professional but I think it’s gone too far. One of the charms of the game for me was that if you weren’t playing you’d sit in the stands with the fans. Cricket is in danger of losing that, although it’s not entirely cricket’s fault. Social media has brought massive pressure to bear on all sports.”

Flintoff is something of a global brand himself, with a quirky media career both here and Down Under. In Britain there’s been daft sports panel games as well as documentaries on 
depression. The Edinburgh show is a break from filming the second series of mobile-chippy odyssey Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere while Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week, a search for the country’s toughest civilian, hits our screens tomorrow night.

Meanwhile in Oz, as the reigning champ of their version of I’m A Celebrity, he’s somehow able to hold down a gig in current affairs. Of all the tales told on stage I find this one the most fantastical. He does, too, quipping: “Possibly only in Burnley am I deemed intelligent but in Australia they think I’m flippin’ Stephen Hawking!”

It’s all true, though, and Flintoff returns to Sydney in November to film more editions of a programme called The Project. So is it like Newsnight? “Maybe The One Show although more serious. There might be a report on Bali’s Death Row, only it’ll be followed straight after by a monkey’s birthday party.”

Post-cricket, Flintoff has also tried boxing: “I liked the training but not hitting people and being hit.” He’s returned to his first love, playing for Lancashire and also in Australia, repeatedly being smashed around the park, although another comeback is unlikely as his knees are knackered. None of these whims, none of the wackiness, could ever have been taken up by W.G. Grace and are unlikely to be copied by this summer’s Ashes-winning captain, Alastair Cook. Our man realises that compared to some of his team-mates when they faced up to retirement he’s been a lucky so-and-so indeed.

Flintoff remembers the emerging Cook as he was finishing up. “Guys like him had their six-packs; I’d have to nip away with my little belly and get changed elsewhere.” But he’s full of praise for the achievement of the skipper and the team in reclaiming the urn. “When everyone else was writing them off I was fully convinced they’d win 3-1. Pundits who’d never won an Ashes were talking up Australia but I couldn’t see anyone in their side as good as Cook, [Ian] Bell, [Joe] Root, Jimmy Anderson, our best bowler, and Stuart Broad with his 300 wickets.”

Impressive for sure but respect, please, for Flintoff’s 402 runs, 24 wickets and three catches ten years before. Is the Downing Street piddle story true? “Yes, although it wasn’t me, it was Simon Jones. But I really did have a go on the children’s swings with Steve Harmison and tell one of Tony Blair’s sons to fetch us a couple of beers. And I really did wander upstairs to the Cabinet Room and try out some of the chairs until a policeman threw me out. The next morning Rachael turned up. She undressed me, chucked me in the bath, put on my tie and saw me on to the bus – it was like being back at school. I don’t suppose they’ll line the streets for an Ashes-winning team again, or throw open the door of No 10. I think we ruined that!”

• Freddie Flintoff: 2nd Innings ends its run at Edinburgh’s Pleasance today