Five years after retiring from cricket, Andrew Flintoff has announced that he'll be returning to play Twenty20 cricket for Lancashire. Back in July 2013, we took the FHM Hero for a rousing game of bowls. Could we have guessed that he'd one day return to the field?...
Freddie Flintoff’s hands shook. A sea of faces looked on. He was more nervous than he’d ever been.
The former cricket star has bowled England to Ashes victory at Edgbaston, boxed in front of 6,000 screaming fans, and been chased by a herd of pigmy elephants in the Indonesian jungle for TV. But today, after an exhilarating game on the bowling green, the 35-year-old is sat in a restaurant with us, recounting how he’d never felt more pressure than when he read The Gruffalo to a class of three-year-olds at son Rocky’s West London school.
“I was so nervous, I was practically gasping for air between pages,” he says. “I kept telling myself, ‘Pull yourself together, Fred – you’ve been savaged by journalists before, and these are just kids.’ But I know from experience that kids are by far the toughest critics.”
This may sound improbable, but hearing the former England captain speak with such deadpan sincerity, it is hard not to take his word for it. While chewing through his slab of steak, talking through life, loves, highs and lows, one thing is clear: when the ball drops, Flintoff will be the first to pick it up... and the heavier it is, the better.
At 6ft 4in, “Super Fred” was, for the best part of a decade, more than just the proverbial talisman of English cricket. He still holds the record for the most sixes scored for England, had the second-highest number of wickets taken in a one-day international and even became the highest-paid cricketer of the Indian Premier League when he joined (albeit briefly) in 2009.
What Englishman could forget that heart-stopping final over in the 2005 Ashes when he sensationally bowled out Aussies Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer to retain the trophy by just two runs? That glorious summer, he was awarded Sports Personality of the Year and an MBE. All this from a young lad that couldn’t throw a ball properly at school.
“I was never that good at cricket,” he says, slightly muffled by a particularly big mouthful of prime ribs. “My bowling action was terrible and I found a way of batting that seemed to work. But I was bloody-minded and never gave up.”
Put simply, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff is the greatest English all-round cricketer of the last 20 years, without rival. But in 2009, after a plague of injuries followed by 15 operations on his ankle, knees and shoulder, his body finally betrayed him and he was forced into early retirement. “The hardest thing is that I didn’t leave on my own terms,” he says wistfully. “I still feel I have unfinished business, and until the last few months I believed I’d come back. To have one last chance to go out in front of that crowd again would be a dream.” And now, returning to the field five years after retiring, that dream will become a reality.
So how does a man so driven, so in love with his sport, so hooked on adrenaline, fill the vast cricket-shaped hole in his life when his body says no? “It was tough because I have a lot of energy inside me and I knew I couldn’t just sit at home watching wildlife shows all day long. I do love giraffes, though,” he strays momentarily. “And dogs. I used to have two Boxers. And like them, I need walking.”
Not content with just watching the box, Freddie spent the next two years making extreme TV that saw him ride a bull in a Texas rodeo, drag race in Las Vegas, skydive in Acapulco and live alone for a week in the African wilderness. “I suppose in some ways I was trying to recreate that buzz I got from playing cricket,” he says.
OVER ARMS TO UPPER CUTS
But even that wasn’t enough. In 2012, he made the extraordinary decision to remould himself from cricketing heavyweight – by his own admission he has always been partial to an ale or three of an evening – to professional boxer. In under five months he shed more than three stone and honed the kind of six-pack you can’t buy in any off-licence. He narrowly won the bout in December against American Richard Dawson despite taking a near game-ending blow to the jaw in the second round that sent him sprawling. It wasn’t pretty. But it was another string to Flintoff’s already-impressive bow.
“I remember the ref asking me my name... I saw my wife Rachael and all my mates watching me from the front row and I was embarrassed,” he says. “I thought if I got knocked out, people would say, ‘There you go, he’s a cricketer on a publicity stunt.’ But it was to overcome my own personal battles. I loved the routine of getting fit and it gave me purpose.”
At 6pm in the restaurant, the evening rush-hour is approaching. The excited nudges and curious whispers between diners who’ve spotted a sporting legend in their midst are impossible to ignore. “Is it too early to have a drink?” we ask hopefully. “Definitely,” Freddie replies, almost scornfully. He orders another Diet Coke. But hold up – is this the same Freddie Flintoff of “Fredalo” fame, who had to be rescued from the shallows after drunkenly failing to commandeer a pedalo at 2am during England’s 2007 World Cup campaign in St Lucia? The same Freddie Flintoff who dozed off on a children’s slide at a Downing Street reception after an all-night bender to celebrate that 2005 Ashes victory? “I’m not that guy any more,” he smiles. “I’ve made some mistakes, but that’s behind me now. I like to have a drink and a laugh with my mates in the pub, but I’m 35. I have to grow up at some point.”
Perhaps, but a pension is still a way off, and his reputation for boozy antics is, most definitely, legendary. There were even claims he would have been a better player if he’d only reined in his drinking. Not according to best friend and England teammate Steve Harmison. “Look,” Steve tells FHM, “Freddie Flintoff is a working-class lad who enjoys being with his mates. Yes, he got drunk and acted the fool, but he never took it on to the pitch – that’s what made him so brilliant. He was 100% committed and, in my England days, having him on the team made the difference between us and the opposition.”
But even Flintoff can’t be without his flaws, right? “He’s afraid of the dark,” concedes Steve without hesitation. “He sleeps with the bathroom light on. I learnt that the hard way when we shared a room on tour.”
THE OLD DOG STILL HAS THE MOVES
Today Freddie is an old sportsman with old injuries. But he’s still a relatively young man. So how will he burn the energy on which he’s thrived for so long? Any weekend cricket team would give their bowling arm to have him on side. “Ha. A lot of those are blokes who’ve worked all week and want to let off steam,” he says. ‘I’ve been abused by the best in the world... I don’t want to be abused by a butcher on a Saturday who’s had a bad week.”
So now, when Freddie gets home, he is drafted most nights into a kitchen dance-off with children Holly, Corey and Rocky. “I’ve developed some pretty slick moves now,” he laughs with a shake of the shoulders. “I took my two eldest to a One Direction gig at The O2 earlier this year and I think by the end I was more into it than them. We’ve listened to them so much I know all the lyrics by heart. And I can hold my own on a fair few Justin Bieber tracks too.”
When not shaking his hips to Up All Night, he can be found over the oven rustling up his specialty garlic-and-herb prawns with broccoli for the family, and acting as “taxi driver” to the kids. “It’s the quiet life for me now,” he says. “My idea of the perfect night is curled up on the sofa with my wife and the kids in front of Coronation Street. And when they go to bed, my guilty pleasure is watching Storage Wars... It’s about shipping containers and it’s bloody brilliant.”
So what does his return to cricket mean for the future? “Success in sport is measurable – you either win or you lose,” he says, politely shunning the desert menu. “But sport careers are short and, in life, things are a lot more complicated. I’m immensely proud of what I’ve achieved and don’t regret a thing. But I like to think my next career will be my longest one. Whatever happens, I just want to be the best that I can be.”
Interview by Matt Blake
Photography by Steve Neaves