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Can Freddie Flintoff stop English cricket's slow march to wider irrelevance?

A new reality show trains the spotlight on the sport's growing elitism, and hopes to do something about it

David Hopps
David Hopps
File photo - Andrew Flintoff is taking to reality TV to fight the idea that cricket isn't for everyone  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

File photo - Andrew Flintoff is taking to reality TV to fight the idea that cricket isn't for everyone  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Cricket is the most elitist sport in Britain, asserts the voice-over in Freddie Flintoff's Field of Dreams, but here is Fred, one of English cricket's best-loved figures, gathering together a disparate group of Preston teenagers and determined to do something about it. That is the premise of the reality TV show that should leave many of those involved in running English cricket over a generation or more squirming with embarrassment.
You are probably aware of the statistics by now - if you did not go to private school, even more so if you have a minority-ethnic background, your chances of forging a professional career with a county club are drastically lower. That you will feel that cricket has any relevance to you at all is also unlikely. But quoting statistics is changing nothing, so perhaps Flintoff can reveal some home truths from a more emotional perspective.
Fred wants to explore cricket's image as a "posh boy sport", and gathers some coaches around him to help. He begins in optimistic mood, imagining how wonderful it would be if he could unearth "the next cricketer who's going to play for their country or a county". But two episodes into this three-episode series, he has become part teacher, part social worker, wrestling with the balance between demanding discipline and providing emotional support, moved by the stories he hears about teenagers sleeping rough in bus stations and asylum seekers desperate for a better life, and the depressingly familiar collection of broken homes and damaged minds.
Flintoff has no coaching experience, but he was brought up in Preston and he gets it. He played his first game as a kid in a hand-me-down Manchester United shirt and "I don't even like Manchester United".
He knows the problem with cricket: "They think it's played by posh people and they think it's boring," he says as he pins up posters on the Broadfield Estate close to where he grew up.
A group is assembled, probably with some off-camera support. A few of those who turn up follow football, but nobody can name a cricketer; the raw hand-eye co-ordination that Flintoff had hoped for is not immediately apparent; and they certainly can't afford any kit. But just don't call these kids underprivileged because at their core it is pride, however it manifests itself, that is holding them together. And, anyway, Preston has come out in surveys as one of the best places to live in the north-west: this is not deprivation, this is normality.
"Did you think us three were posh?" he asks the group about himself and his fellow coaches.
"You've got a Ferrari, what do you mean?" comes the answer.
Flintoff is a state-school lad made good and he connects with people. (I vaguely remembering questioning how he would adapt post-retirement, but I was entirely wrong and he has embraced the "TV celebrity" role with great vigour and capability). The encouragement of his coaching team, Kyle Hogg, a former Lancashire team-mate, among them, slowly brings improvement. A firm belief in the positive bonding experiences provided by team sport is only gently expressed, but the benefits are clear for all to see.
He takes his team 60 miles north to Patterdale in the heart of the Lake District for their first match. It's a nice counterpoint. Their opponents have an average age of 65, the ground is one of the most beautiful in England, and the cricket teas are to die for. Being expected to wear white kit, complete with cable-knit sweaters, spooks many in Team Flintoff.
They lose, deflated gently by opponents whose age brings wisdom about how to pitch the game. "A win is having the confidence to go and play," says Flintoff. He has sensed the insecurity behind the bravado.
Field of Dreams is not a polemic, quite the opposite, but when he starts searching for a ground his team can use, everybody should vent their anger. He visits two grounds he knows from his youth. His own ground in Preston's Harris Park is now derelict and owned by a property company. Another ground has "the police on speed dial". Without grounds like these, and the family support he received, England might have lost one of their most-loved allrounders in history. The point is allowed to rest subtly, but this is Broken Britain, social fabric collapsing, opportunities narrowing. This is a story as much about the state of Britain as the state of cricket, not that this should give the game a free pass.
Ben reveals that he was sleeping rough in Preston Bus Station at 16. He has been lucky enough to get council starter accommodation and is studying for college. He is a big lad who can whack it if he connects. Sean has behavioural problems and when the coaches complain "they're dicking around again", he is normally involved.
This is reality TV and, as such, Flintoff must find a home for his team. He gets access to the people who matter in South Ribble Council and gets a grant of £200,000 to rehabilitate Vernon-Carus Sports Club, two miles outside Preston, after pledging £50,000 himself. "Cricket wouldn't have been top of my wish list," remarks a council official. No surprise there then. The subsequent Council press release, incidentally, makes no reference to Field of Dreams.
Thousands of coaches, unsung and unpaid, struggle throughout the year to combat a shortage of players, lack of volunteers, and lack of funding. At the heart of their problems is a breakdown of society, of the recognition that you must give something back. Ten minutes sweeping out the dressing rooms of their new home and several of Flintoff's group have already had enough. You hope the team survives when Flintoff and the cameras depart, but it would be an even bigger achievement if it did.
The real breakthough (conveniently perhaps?) comes when Adnan joins the group. He fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control, arrived in England in the back of a lorry, cut his way out, and handed himself into the police station. He didn't speak a word of English and his foster family tell how they stopped fearing for his state of mind when he started connecting through cricket. He is a natural cricketer with bat and ball and because he is on their side, giving them hope of success, the team take to him. Only Adnan loves the game; in fact, it defines him.
Episode 2 ends with the team playing their first match and, well, you'll have to watch it to find out the outcome. But Ben sums it up best. "Since I started playing cricket, it has changed my life, being in a little community, from being just a homeless kid."
That's his TV reality. But despite all the schemes and all the promises, the game is shrinking. Every time councils or schools depict cricket as elitist and allow it to wither, every time cricket officialdom settles for lip service and a fat pension, every time cricket volunteering falls further out of fashion, the game becomes more elitist still. The figures are disputed (why don't they even exist?), but cricket grounds are disappearing at an alarming rate and so are the chances of all but the most privileged.
The final episode of Freddie Flintoff's Field of Dreams is on BBC 1 on Tuesday night. It can also be downloaded from BBC iPlayer.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps