Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: “I took the joy of teamwork for granted”

Cricket can be more than just a game, as Freddie Flintoff's BBC One documentary reveals
October 6, 2022

Having played cricket from a young age, I took the joy of teamwork for granted until a recent BBC One documentary—Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams—reminded me that it can be a vital and exciting discovery.

Privileged by good fortune, with enough money to pay for equipment and so on, I was among those (perhaps you were too, dear Prospect reader?) introduced early on to activities founded on teamwork. As an adult, I remember when the whole cricket team was lifted—each player functioning “above himself”, bonded together by group coherence and mutual satisfaction. 

We also went through trials together, tests that created depth and solidarity. In actual test matches, over five days (plus, in my time, a rest day), such a group spirit was felt most powerfully at the end of a gruelling game, especially when we’d won or played well. (Fainter versions of this could even be felt for the opposition, who had after all gone through it with us!)

However, there are people whose circumstances have not afforded them the opportunity to be in a team. This is something that Flintoff, one of England’s best all-rounders ever, is determined to rectify—at least for a group of boys in his hometown of Preston. In a three-part documentary released this summer, we watch Flintoff return home with a challenge: can he find teenage boys who had never played cricket but who might like to try? If so, could he help them form a team? 

Flintoff puts up posters all over the town—in a boxing club, in sportswear outlets, in fish-and-chip shops. To his relief, boys turn up, in dribs and drabs. The documentary shows, movingly, how far they come within a year, many of them having never held a bat before. 

Before Flintoff’s experiment, some of the boys had been isolated and disillusioned; discarded by, and rejecting of, society. Some found power through being disruptive, whether at school or at home, testing adults to see how they coped. There was a tendency to say “I’m not bothered” in order to avoid mockery or disappointment, especially when trying out a new and potentially embarrassing activity. But there was also a willingness to voice their enjoyment. Some of these youngsters lacked expectations, and needed to overcome shyness and risk humiliation to learn what becoming part of a team really means. And they turned up after school hours, and kept at it.

There was also a proper pride: one boy complained about the term “underprivileged”. “Just because we don’t play cricket doesn’t mean we’re underprivileged; I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It’s disrespectful to say that.” His remark also warned me of the risk of becoming patronising.

Nevertheless, it was clear that many of the participants doubted that anyone would see them as worthwhile. Flintoff did. He was always straight with them, listening to them, telling them not to swear, getting fed up with their fooling around. He never spoke down to them. He gave down-to-earth team talks. He told them how impressed he was at their progress. Flintoff had to adjust his own notion of what it is to win: “It’s having the confidence to go out and give it a go.” His belief in these boys
was palpable.

The changes in the participants by the end of the year were remarkable. They had a new love, which gave them purpose, and teammates, plus a real cricket ground, with its bar and changing rooms rescued from near-dilapidation by the council, who had been persuaded by Flintoff’s enthusiasm to fund £250,000 worth of repairs (to which the cricketer contributed £25,000). The boys themselves took part in the painting and renovation.

The series was not rose-tinted. It ended realistically, with no guarantee that the impetus would continue for many. But seeds of hope had been planted, a kind of hope that requires learning, hard work and commitment.

The cast of characters is varied, including:

Sean: aged 15, articulate, quick, self-aware, but prone to spoil good things, as if to show everyone that it’s not easy to win him round. But when he’s made captain of a small group at a teambuilding day in the hills, he leads them with focus, thoughtfulness and fair-mindedness. We learn at the end that he has not yet joined the cricket club, but has gained an apprenticeship as a plumber and clearly enjoys learning new skills.

Ben: now 18, had earlier been sleeping rough in Preston bus station. He had been depressed. Now he has a job and a place of his own. Ben puts into words just how much this previously “posh, boring game” has transformed his life.  

Adnan: 16 years old, the star player. Adnan comes along part-way in. He is an Afghan asylum seeker, who a year before had made his way to the UK, crossing the channel in the back of a lorry. He was without a friend, a family member or any English. He did already have a passion for cricket, which had been sparked by  playing in the streets of Afghanistan. He turned out to be a brisk left-arm bowler, and a magnificent striker of the ball, with relaxed and wristy power. The kindly elderly couple who had taken him in as a foster child facilitated his passion. At the end of the programme, he is still waiting to hear if he has permission to stay in the UK, but the Home Office has at least allowed him to train with a Lancashire junior squad. (Late news: Adnan has permission to stay!)

Then there were Ethan, Josh, Hemi, Ray, Nico, Umar, Dylan, Finn, Mac—and the others. 

The team played their first match against a club team, average age 65, at Patterdale (near Ullswater). They gained their first win in the second, against a team of younger but more experienced boys. The third was at a public school, where they were wide-eyed at the striped blazers, the Gothic-style chapel and the acres of beautifully tended pitches. There were wry comments that made us viewers aware of their awe, with its potential for a defensive contempt—but the boys managed to hold on to their self-respect in all these situations. 

Of course, Flintoff’s scheme couldn’t have happened without strong support. The broadcasters’ budget made money available for kit, bus trips, the use of indoor nets and gyms and more. 

But the most important input was that of Flintoff himself, together with a Lancashire teammate of his, Kyle Hogg. Freddie is a special person (though none of the boys had heard of him!) and there were also roles for his England contemporaries Alex Tudor, Monty Panesar, Rob Key, Ryan Sidebottom, current women’s international Ellie Threlkeld and ex-England captain Michael Vaughan. 

In my first meeting with Steve Waugh, who was then captain of one of the most successful Australian cricket teams ever, he told me that his ambition was to make his squad not only better cricketers, but also better people. Clearly this can happen—at every age and every level.