CRICKET gave him sporting glory and helped turn him into one of Britain’s best-loved TV stars – but Freddie Flintoff believes his working-class up-bringing almost stopped him succeeding in the game.
He told the latest edition of Radio Times: “At both the state schools I went to, cricket was just not on the radar.
“I got so much stick for playing cricket, bullied even, it was almost like Billy Elliot — except he had it easier being a ballet dancer.
“I played football for acceptance more than enjoyment.”
His dad, a plumber, was the captain of a local cricket tea.
But when Freddie, who now co-hosts BBC1 motoring show Top Gear, was starting out in the game in the late Eighties and earlt Nineties he could see the class divide.
He said: “I had my bat I’d bought myself for £21.50 and my Auntie Joan bought my pads from Hamley’s toy shop.
“You turn up and you’re playing against all these private school kids who’ve got all the gear.
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“I took this weird pleasure in beating them.
“But when you look at the England team, when we started this process (of the documentary) a year ago, it was 60:40 public school to state school kids, which on the surface sounds fine.
“But bear in mind only seven per cent of kids across the population go to private school. That makes it elitist.”
And he is convinced the problem has got worse, not better, from when he was a child.
Announcing the BBC1 documentary last year, he said: “Cricket is more elitist per head than rugby, rowing and the House of Lords.
“We’ve got to do something to get young, working-class people playing our national summer sport again.
“I really hope this series can demonstrate that with some time and coaching anyone can learn to love cricket and have the opportunities that came my way.”
In Field Of Dreams, Freddie takes 11 lads from his home city of Preston and tries to convince them that cricket is a worthwhile venture they can succeed at.
It is a “passion project” to give something back to the sport he loves and to help improve the kids’ life chances.
He is not taking a fee for the show and is also stumping up £50,000 of his own cash towards the project.
But it gets off to a shaky start, with father-of-four Freddie uncertain if the youngsters will even turn up.
When they do, eventually, he compares the chaos of their initial training session to, “A f***ing zoo”.
I got so much stick for playing cricket, bullied even, it was almost like Billy Elliot — except he had it easier being a ballet dancer.
He sticks with them, however, not least because many have not had the best starts in life.
Among them are asylum seekers, youngsters with behavioural difficulties and rough sleepers.
Freddie wanted to convince the wannabe team that he was not just backing them, but he was one of them, too.
He said: “To begin with, the kids saw me as a bloke who’s played cricket, or works on Top Gear.
“But when I told them about where I grew up, where we lived, the things I used to do and where I went to school, it was almost like it changed them.
“I’ve seen programmes like this before on the telly, and people dip in and out, and they come on when the cameras are there, look good and leave.
“But I wanted to get to know these kids, spend time and almost be mates with them.”
After retiring from cricket 12 years ago due to a long line of injuries, Freddie went on to find fame and fortune on TV.
He has always been known for his cheeky sense of humour and everyman image, which sometimes spilled over into drunken, and controversial antics.
But it was part of an image that made him a natural choice for telly producers.
He was snapped up as a team captain for Sky panel show A League Of Their Own
He has also fronted reality challenge shows The Games and Don’t Rock The Boat and won the Australian version of I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! in 2015.
We’ve got to do something to get young, working-class people playing our national summer sport again.
He has turned his hand to sports commentary, starred in musical Fat Friends and featured in adverts for everything from supermarkets to oversized menswear.
He tamed his hellraising ways after marrying wife Rachael in 2005 and went on to quit booze and get fit enough to dabble in celebrity boxing for a while.
His profile perhaps reached new heights in 2019 when he was named co-host of the Top Gear reboot alongside Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris.
Small wonder his company accounts show he earns over £1million a year and his business is worth almost £6m
But he says his successes have often been driven by fear of failure — something he learned as a cricketer.
He once said: “Whatever I do will never be enough. I look back on my cricket career and I can tell you all my failures, but not too many successes.
“Some people might think that’s a bit weird, but that was the one thing that drove me to strive to get better.
“I remember how I got out in every match. I can’t really tell you about the fours and sixes I’ve hit.”
Although returning to play cricket in his home city for the documentary turned out to be a huge challenge for Freddie, it certainly has not put him off coming home.
He said: “Wherever I go, at work and where I live now, I find it very difficult to feel comfortable around people and I realised that actually, the place I feel most comfortable, obviously outside my family, is cricket and Preston.
“My youngest child is called Preston and I want to move back there one day.”
- Field Of Dreams is on BBC1, Tuesday, July 5, 8pm.