Five minutes into this interview, I tell Andrew Flintoff that I know he’s fibbing. Flintoff, who is part of Sky’s commentary team for the Hundred, is talking about how happy he is to be involved in cricket again having spent the past few years working on Top Gear, Lord of the Fries, Australian Ninja Warrior, Cannonball, A League of Their Own and I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! among other shows.
“I’ve not done a great deal of cricket since I retired because I never thought the time was right,” he says, “but all I ever wanted to be growing up was a cricketer. It is a world which I feel really comfortable in, and a world I’ve not been in for while, so coming back now, it’s been really nice.”
On 25 August 2019, when Ben Stokes was setting about Australia’s 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 cliff jumping. So I’m there in a pair of shorts, waiting to jump into the sea for no apparent reason, and the camera lads who are cricket fans were giving me updates on Stokes’s knock. And I’m thinking to myself: ‘Is this what it has come to?’”
During lockdown, Flintoff was also watching Sky’s cricket coverage and thinking “how good it is and how much fun people have working on it, and I almost felt like I was missing out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do, but I thought: ‘I’d like a bit of that in my life.’” So he signed up for what he says is his first real involvement with his old sport since he came out of retirement to play a season in Australia’s Big Bash League in 2015.
Which is when I tell him he’s not being straight. Because I know he’s been back playing for his old club, St Annes. “Oh,” Flintoff says as he winces, “I knew this was going to come up.”
It was one game – against Morecambe in the Northern Premier League. Flintoff’s 15-year-old son, Corey, played in it too. “They haven’t got a pro this year and the Thursday night before the first game they were struggling for numbers, and I said: ‘Look, if you’re stuck I’ll put my kit in the car.’ I turned up at Morecambe and I’m playing. So the captain says: ‘Where do you want to bat?’ I said: ‘I’d like to go last, please.’
“He tried to talk me into going to No 4 and in the end we agreed on 7, which was probably a couple too high. I got three and then I left one from the left-arm spinner and it was an arm ball and it clipped off stump, so I got off as fast as I could.”
For all his happy-go-lucky bluster, Flintoff was too good, too recently, to enjoy playing without preparing properly. “If I’m playing I like to practise, but I was going out to bat expecting absolutely nothing, thinking: ‘If I do anything well it’s going to be an absolute fluke,’ 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 children, but Flintoff says: “I’m always worried that it’s going to put more pressure on them, when I just want them to get on and enjoy it. Anyway, after a week at work, my good time’s become just sitting in a chair watching my boys play. I really enjoy that, much more than the thought of not being able to move for two or three days afterwards if I play myself.”
Flintoff doesn’t mention it but he agreed to become St Annes’ president, too. It is good to think about him coming back to his roots in cricket like this, after all these years watching him drift away and into gameshows and gimmick TV. Talking of which, I ask him what his friends at St Annes think of the Hundred. I know that if their opinions are anything like the ones you hear at some other clubs, the answers will not please the PR who is hovering in the corner.
“People are saying a lot of different things,” he says. “I suppose that’s to be expected. A lot of kids are looking forward to seeing England players, international players on TV, and then you get the traditionalists who might need their mind changing a little bit. Because cricket doesn’t like change, does it? Let’s be honest. When I was playing I hated change because I liked my routine. Still do. So I get why other people do too.”
He remembers 2003, the last time the England and Wales Cricket Board launched a new format. “They got all the players down to Edgbaston for a presentation on T20, and the reaction wasn’t good. I remember saying to Glen Chapple: ‘We’re going all the way 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 on year it became more competitive, and there was more at stake, so the attitude towards it quickly changed.”
This time he thinks the players are buying into it from the start. If Flintoff’s right, it will not be the only difference between the two competitions. Twenty20 cost around £500,000 to set up, lasted about a fortnight originally and was still a county competition. The Hundred has cost almost £50m a year, will last a month and is between eight new city-based teams.
That last part has certainly gone down poorly with traditionalists. “That’s an adjustment for me too,” Flintoff says. “I’m not going to lie, I played for Lancashire, I wanted to be a Lancashire player since I was nine, and I still love going there to watch them. So I get what they’re saying. And I think it comes from a good place. People actually love and care for cricket. They don’t want to lose it or they don’t want it to be unrecognisable from the game they know. So we still have a responsibility to the counties.
“I’ve got a box at Old Trafford and I go along and watch them play T20 with my family and friends and I love it. But for me it’s not one or the other. I can support Lancashire and love it and I can also enjoy Manchester in the Hundred as well. I don’t really take it in isolation. It’s a part of the cricket landscape.”
Flintoff is a good salesman – warm and straightforward. You can see why Sky have signed him. “When you talk to people about it a little bit and explain, they get it,” he says. “The conversations I’m having with people are: ‘Yeah, they might be called Manchester, but you’re going to get to see Jos Buttler and Kagiso Rabada play.’ Down in Hampshire they’ve got David Warner and Jofra Archer and in Wales they have Kieron Pollard and Jonny Bairstow. So the names might be different, but they have the best players playing for them.”
At least, that was the idea. But the Board of Control for Cricket in India has refused to release its players and the practicalities of holding the tournament during a global pandemic mean Warner, Rabada and many other overseas players have withdrawn.
Still, Flintoff is optimistic. “I think it’ll be a great introduction to the game,” he says. “It’s somewhere to start. I remember I was on the Graham Norton Show years ago trying to explain the rules of cricket to Jennifer Lopez, I mean, where do you start? You know what I mean? But the Hundred is slightly different. You know where you are with it. There’s 100 balls and whoever gets the most runs wins. And I know you can split it up into fives, 10s and all that, but it’s easy to explain.”
That story speaks for itself about Flintoff’s star power. There has not been anyone quite like him since he finished, not even Stokes (who he readily admits is a better player), because Flintoff played in 2005, on Channel Four. The best argument for the Hundred, funnily enough, may just be one he cannot really make, because he’s working for Sky. It will put the sport back on free-to-air TV.
The people who complain they don’t like it … “Well,” Flintoff cuts in. “They’ve not seen it yet, so you can’t not like something you haven’t seen, can you? But I appreciate that people have a lot of opinions on it. That’s good, because they’ll watch it to see if they’re right, whether we are talking about ‘outs’ instead of ‘wickets’. Then they’ll see who’s on show and that will be the chance to change their minds. So there’s not much point trying to persuade them now. The spectacle will do that.”
Andrew Flintoff is part of the Sky Sports team for the Hundred this summer. Watch every ball of the competition live on Sky Sports The Hundred.