When Andrew Flintoff was at the peak of his powers, thrilling England fans with his rumbustious presence and match-changing exploits with bat and ball, he took with him everywhere a three-word catchphrase that perfectly summed up how much it all meant to him.
I last heard it in the City Grange Hotel, overlooking the Tower of London on the banks of the Thames, in the early hours of September 13, 2005.
He and his best mate Steve Harmison were busy preparing themselves for the open-topped bus ride round Trafalgar Square to celebrate winning the 2005 Ashes – followed by a trip to No.10 Downing St – by emptying the bar of all available beer and not, under any circumstances, going to bed.
“Living the dream,” Fred called it.
Memories of that moment made what he told us this week on his BBC Radio 5 Live show Flintoff, Savage and the Ping-Pong Guy so poignant, because it expressed eloquently and with disarming honesty how, post-cricket, he is now reduced to dreaming the life – and the reaction on social media from former cricketers, among others, indicated just how sharply a nerve had been struck.
How did he feel about not being a cricketer any more, about having had to retire before his time, worn down by a succession of injuries that, no matter how hard he worked to bat them away, did for him far too soon?
“I found it tough,” he explained, “for the simple reason that ever since I was six years of age all I wanted to do was be a cricketer…
“I was so fortunate that I did so until I was 31 years of age.
“Cricket gave me a life, it gave me an identity and, when it was taken away, it took everything. It was like ‘what do I do with myself? Who am I? What am I doing?’
“You’d be on a plane. You’d be filling in forms and it would say ‘Occupation’ and I didn’t know. I was a cricketer but what am I now?
“I used to sit there (at cricket matches)… I hated it. I couldn’t watch the game; I didn’t want to be around it, I couldn’t watch other people doing it because I felt I should be playing.
“Even now – it’s really bizarre – I reckon I dream about cricket every single night.
“I wake up some mornings and I’ve played a game of cricket or I’ve made a comeback and I’ll open my eyes and I’ll be so happy because I think I’m playing cricket again. And about five minutes later I’ll be brushing my teeth and think ‘no I’m not, am I? Oh, it’s back to 5 Live!’
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let it go and, as a result of that, mentally it took its toll on me. You talk about things like depression, which I’ve openly talked about and suffered from. I’ve hit the bottle too hard for a period of time…all these things.
“I’ve moved around. I moved to Dubai, I moved down south. It was almost like I was trying to escape a previous life but the problem was wherever I went I took all these thoughts and all these feelings with me.
“And, one of the strangest things, my mind, even though there is a lot going on in there, it will not accept the fact that I cannot play cricket any more. It does not understand.”
That the status and the fame and, occasionally, the notoriety Flintoff enjoyed during his time in the game meant far less than playing it was clear to those who spent time with him.
Why else would he have put himself through so much physical and mental anguish to try and get himself fit time and again?
With his second career on the telly up and running and the bills paid many times over, why else would he return after five years in retirement to play Twenty20 cricket for Lancashire in 2014?
Why else would he risk his reputation one last time with Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash that winter?
Regarding the pure enthusiasm of the six-year-old who only ever wanted to play cricket, those who watched him hobble out to bat at Downton Hall, Shropshire in a charity match to raise money for Help for Heroes and repairs to a local church roof in the summer of 2010 saw it for themselves.
After having persuaded him to turn out for nothing for a lunch and Q& A and an afternoon of mingling with his adoring public and a group of injured soldiers, the organisers chanced their arm by asking him to have a hit for the crowd of 4,000-plus and before the question was cold he had said ‘of course’, not because he felt he had to but because he wanted to and when he was caught on the boundary by an SAS man off the son of a local farmer, the genuine, unmistakeable disappointment he felt showed how much fun he had been having.
So far, nothing in his new life has come close, whether it be training for and taking part in his one professional boxing bout in 2012, hosting his team on SKY TV’s A League Of Their Own, winning the first series of the Australian version of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here or driving his fish’n’chip van the length and breadth of the country.
Flintoff is far from alone in experiencing that disconnect that cricketers feel when their cricketing days are over and cricket is, of course, far from being the only profession where this applies.
For their part, the Professional Cricketers’ Association have taken huge strides in raising awareness through their Mind matters programme.
But, in a week when England’s Test cricketers attended a big bash of their own at Lord’s to celebrate being part of that club, from which he was conspicuous by his absence, Fred’s words were a moving reminder of what life can hold for some when the batting, the bowling and the banter stop, when living the dream turns to dreaming the life.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 24 2017
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