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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jim Waterson Media editor

‘Perfect time to come back’: cricket ready to welcome Andrew Flintoff home after horror Top Gear crash

Andrew Flintoff working with the England team at Lord’s on Friday
Andrew Flintoff working with the England team at Lord’s on Friday. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

Last December the family of Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff feared the worst when the former England cricketer was airlifted to hospital after a serious crash while filming an episode of the BBC’s Top Gear. After flipping his three-wheeled, wooden-framed racing car on a Surrey circuit, Flintoff survived but vanished from the public eye while he received extensive treatment.

On Friday his tentative return to public life continued at Lord’s cricket ground, after he spent the last week informally helping the England men’s team during their one-day international series against New Zealand. Taking part in warmups and bowling practice has given Flintoff, 45, a chance to be seen in public for the first time since his near-death crash last December. Wounds across his nose and chin remained clearly visible.

According to those who know him best, Flintoff’s Top Gear presenting days are likely to be over. The future of the programme itself remains in the balance.

David “Bumble” Lloyd, a former England cricketer, suggested Flintoff was being lined up for a permanent role on the England coaching staff. “I think that’s the way he’s looking. He’s done telly, he’s done boxing. This is a perfect time for him to come back. I’m a big advocate for iconic players like that to spend some time away from the game and then come back,” Lloyd said.

After a decade away pursuing a career as a television presenter, Flintoff has been welcomed back into the sport that made him a household name. Working with the England squad has enabled him to manage his first public appearances, giving him the confidence to show his face in public, and without having to subject himself to media interviews.

Lloyd said Flintoff had been “very badly disfigured” by the accident and would have to manage his return “step by step”, but an England job was the likely outcome. He said Rob Key, England’s director of cricket and an old friend of Flintoff, had gone out of his way to ease the former player into the coaching setup. Flintoff had been quietly put to work with England’s under-19 players until he was ready to go public with the senior men’s team.

The gradual return required some subterfuge. During the fourth Ashes Test in July, the press box at Old Trafford cricket ground was packed with journalists watching England’s attempt to beat Australia and the Manchester rain. What the dozens of reporters didn’t know, according to Lloyd, was that Flintoff had been smuggled into an office just 10 yards away from their seats, enabling old cricket friends to quietly slip off to say hello.

Lloyd, a former Lancashire player turned commentator, said he would be summoned by text message to say hello to Flintoff without any of the other journalists clocking that they had missed a major story. “All I’d get from Rob Key is ‘Fred’s here’, so I’d go in and we’d have a grand chat. I’m the bloke who signed him when he was 15, he’s been like a fourth son to me, I’m thrilled he’s coming back to the game.”

One person who has seen Flintoff first-hand during the series against New Zealand suggested he had been “inspirational”, with the current squad asking him for advice before next month’s Cricket World Cup. “The players have loved him, he’s a legend … they have all said that it’s great having someone around the group who knows cricket so much and is a legend.”

Andrew Flintoff on the England balcony at Lord’s
Flintoff on the England balcony during the fourth one-day international against New Zealand at Lord’s. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

Flintoff’s crash – the second near-death experience for a Top Gear presenter, after Richard Hammond was left in a coma in 2006 – has raised questions over whether the show should rely on celebrities rather than professional drivers for its more dangerous stunts. When the ex-cricketer got the Top Gear job in 2018, there was surprise among some people who knew him well as they had never thought of him as an expert on cars.

Details of exactly what happened in the crash last December are few and far between. Multiple sources have suggested the incident involved a far lower speed than the 130mph that has been reported in some news stories. The bigger issue appears to have been the model of car that Flintoff flipped: the Morgan Super 3, an open-topped, three-wheel sportscar handbuilt by a niche British manufacturer.

A few weeks before Flintoff’s accident, the car website Jalopnik described the previous edition of the Super 3 as a risky thrill to drive.

Although there has been no formal confirmation that Flintoff will be leaving Top Gear, which has been on pause since the incident, the BBC will soon need to make a decision on the future of one of its most bankable brands.

The Times reported that the senior executive Clare Pizey left the programme earlier this year, while the core production team – recently relocated to Bristol – have been unable to work on new programmes.

In the coming weeks, the BBC will receive the results of an independent health and safety review of the show, which will shape what sort of programme can be made in the future.

The BBC will have to decide what to do with the already filmed episodes featuring Flintoff alongside co-hosts Paddy McGuiness and Chris Harris – as well as potentially dealing with the tricky task of finding a replacement presenter willing to take risks.

Although Top Gear’s ratings have dropped since Jeremy Clarkson’s heyday in the 2000s, the show continues to pull in healthy audiences – and the brand continues to be highly profitable for the BBC around the world, with a website and overseas editions continuing to be made. The programme is made by BBC Studios, the BBC’s commercial division, but is commissioned by the BBC’s public service wing, meaning the director of content, Charlotte Moore, will have the final say on its future format.

For Flintoff, who also made the hit documentary Field of Dreams about encouraging children to try cricket, a return home to sport could be calling. Lloyd suggested it was time for his old friend to play a part in the so-called Bazball era under the head coach, Brendon McCullum. “He is a fantastic bloke and he’ll be terrific around that England team,” Lloyd said. “He absolutely fits what they’ve got now. He’s there to inspire.”

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