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Field of Dreams places a welcome spotlight on a very relatable issue
ELIZABETH BOTCHERBY: Summing up the current landscape, Flintoff hits the nail on the head: "You have to be lucky or privileged to play cricket." It's a damning sentiment and one which will resonate with a lot of people, myself included
Andrew Flintoff is a former England captain and a 2005 Ashes hero. He made 227 international appearances, scoring over 3,000 runs in both Test and ODI cricket and picking up exactly 400 wickets. He played over 500 matches throughout his professional career, turning out for Lancashire, Chennai Super Kings and Brisbane Heat.
But it’s all a world away from the estates of Preston, the setting for his three-part series Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, where both his achievements – "the kids thought I’d just done a bit of Top Gear" - and cricket in general are an alien concept.
In the series, Flintoff, with the help of former Lancashire teammate Kyle Hogg, assembles a group of "unlikely lads" from his home city and attempts to turn them into a cricket team, challenging their negative perceptions and lack of awareness of the sport in the process. "Why would you come round here and think anyone would play cricket?" quips Ben, one of the participants.
Flintoff wants to shatter cricket’s image as a posh boy sport, shine a light on the state school versus private school debate, and unearth some untapped talent, maybe even find "the next cricketer who’s going to play for their country or a county". He is quickly forced to abandon his hopes on the latter front. During one particular net session, three-pointers into a nearby basketball hoop are easier to come by than wickets.
But for much of the series, the cricket skills, or lack thereof, on display take a back seat.
Flintoff's team hanging out at Vernon Carus Sports Club [BBC Pictures]
During his search for a club for the boys to play at, Flintoff revisits several of his childhood haunts only to find that many of the once thriving clubs, including Vernon Carus Sports Club, are now shadows of their former selves, if they even exist at all. He goes to the council to assist with his search and comes face to face with a funding crisis which means grassroots sport is not a priority.
It’s a sight not restricted to Lancashire. In the past few months, Bayford & Hertford Nondescripts have launched a social media campaign to 'Save Village Cricket'; in their most recent newsletter, the Club Cricket Conference discussed the same issue. Grassroots cricket is inching towards the abyss.
We also get to know the boys involved. There’s Sean, the scally of the group, who has been in and out of various schools and frequently clashes with Flintoff; boys who’ve spent time sleeping on the streets; and Adnan, an Afghan teenager who travelled over 5,000km before finding refuge in Preston.
He turned up at the centre out of the blue and immediately made an impression – "he wangs a few down at the speed of sound then goes and hits sixes everyone," remarks Flintoff. The boys, previously fairly immune to Hogg’s teachings, were in awe of him, crowding him with questions, and he later describes the group as his 'family'.
In the end, whether they can play cricket or not is not important. What matters is what a sports club can offer an individual: community, safety, support networks. But is it any surprise these boys haven’t tapped into this resource?
Summing up the current landscape, Flintoff hits the nail on the head: "You have to be lucky or privileged to play cricket." It’s a damning sentiment, one which should be written out like lines until it is burned into the brains of cricket administrators everywhere, and one which will resonate with a lot of people, myself included.
Like Flintoff, who considers himself fortunate to have been born into a cricketing family, I was born into fortunate circumstances. Of his upbringing, he says, "For love and support, we couldn’t have had any more" and reflecting on my own childhood, I won’t hesitate in agreeing. On the whole, my experiences are polar opposite to Flintoff’s team.
But cricket never really featured on my radar.
Lancaster University Women's Cricket Club 2015-16
I don’t come from a cricketing family. My grandad was partial to Test Match Special and entertained my curiosity about County Championship scorecards in the newspaper; my uncle – a member of the grammar school generation – played a bit as a teenager. But that’s about it.
In this job, I speak to a lot of private schools, taking note of their extensive facilities and retelling stories of team triumphs and exciting tours. My school, whose alumni include Thunder and England A wicketkeeper Ellie Threlkeld, didn’t have a cricket pitch or a girl’s cricket team – to be fair, even the boy’s set-up was fairly skeletal. Cricket was restricted to half a dozen PE lessons in the summer, fighting for attention with rounders, tennis and what can only loosely be described as athletics.
At home, we didn’t have Sky; the digital switchover alone elicited much consternation. Given I was eight at the time, I wasn’t swept up in Ashes fever in 2005.
My cricket experiences were limited to horsing around on the drive with my brothers, a bucket of balls and a fairly knackered bat while our neighbour, Mr Williams, offered periodic updates about the action unfolding on TV. He was a particular fan of women’s cricket and without his over the fence analysis of Charlotte Edwards, I’d probably have grown up completely unaware of England Women.
When I belatedly began playing regularly at university, the girls I met along the way told frustratingly similar tales. Many of them simply joined in because it was one of the few sports clubs which didn't require trials or compulsory gym sessions.
Visibility, image and perception are problems for cricket at all levels, from the professional game right the way down to grassroots clubs. Whether it’s fair or not, cricket is associated with elitism, racism, wealth and cliques.
And while Flintoff’s documentary only scratches the surface of these issues and the potential solutions, shining the light on just one community – Preston’s forgotten male youth, it will hopefully trigger conversations, some of them possibly unwelcome, which will shape the future of cricket.
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