Time’s up for the showman

“The Botham phenomenon has been detailed too often for me to need repeat it at all. Let me just skim across the surface of a career that had so much depth as well as so much breadth,” says the author, in his appreciation of Ian Terrance Botham.

Ian Botham... the Englishman played his cricket hard.   -  V. V. Krishnan

I want to remember Ian Botham — and I am sure I am not alone in this desire — as a hero. I don’t want to have to make excuses for him, even to myself. I hope, therefore, that he never plays international cricket of any sort again. It is all the more likely that England will not call on his services in the future after the remarkable sequence of events in the first two Tests against Pakistan.

The first, at Edgbaston, was badly hit by rain so that only two deliveries were bowled in the opening couple of days. On the third Botham bowled 13 overs and then retired with a groin strain. He took no further part in the match. During the second Test, at Lord’s, he made two in the first innings and six in the second. He did not bowl. He took two catches — in which he equalled Colin Cowdrey’s England record of 120 in Tests — and dropped two (or three if you want to be either unkind or very precise).

 

His most memorable part of the match — in which he wore those wrap-around dark glasses that, so one is told, make it easier to see in the glare or make the most of semi-darkness — was to slip in the shower and further damage his groin. He was also hit on the toe, by Mushtaq Ahmed of all people, and it was later found to be either badly bruised or broken.

As a result Botham was left out of the third Test squad and advised by David Graveney, his captain at the newly-formed county of Durham, to rest until he was completely fit. It was good advice by a considerate man who, like me and many more Botham admirers does not want to see a great cricketer demean himself by struggling on when he is either not fully fit or when he is past his best.

I am afraid that, big though his heart is, and greatly determined though the man may be, Botham now has a short life on the shelf. I’m sorry. He was, in the ten years in which I have reported every England Test match save three, the most whole-hearted, most enthusiastic and most gung-ho cricketer on their side. He did not see any match lost until he had given his last ounce of energy, he was happy to walk through fire and water for the cause and, whatever his critics may say, he had technical ability far in excess of his team-mates.

The Botham phenomenon has been detailed too often for me to need repeat it all. Besides there is not the space to do him justice. Let me just skim across the surface of a career that had so much depth as well as so much breadth and almost as much drama as a daring writer might cram into a soap opera.

He has played 102 Tests and only the specialist batsmen Geoff Boycott (108), David Gower (114) and Cowdrey (114) have played more. He is one of the top ten England batsmen with 5,200 runs at a disappointing 33.93; but that average is almost as high as that of Allan Lamb, another specialist batsman who dropped out of the side at the same time.

Ian Botham and Graham Gooch share a light moment during the 1992 World Cup 1992 in Australia.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

Botham bowled everything from plain fast — in the 1985 Ashes series against Australia — through his first offering of beautifully-controlled, perfectly-pitched outswingers at the top end of fast medium, to his present fare which it would be polite to call military medium, although it contains all the elements of change of pace, change of line and change of direction so that even the finest batsmen sometimes find the ball is not at the end of their bat as they push forward.

He also flirted with off breaks, believing they might serve him in an emergency. I will draw a kindly curtain over these ordinary deliveries. Batting and bowling apart, Botham was a magnificent fielder, quick in the outfield, certain in the inner ring and, at his specialist position of second slip, not only great but also an innovator. He stood in advance of first slip and placed both hands on his knees. The purists blanched, but he knew that by doing so he was well balanced and that he could go high or low and be sure to take every edge. I include the giants of slip-catching like Bobby Simpson, Wally Hammond and Greg Chappell when I say no one was better and, indeed, the two catches he held in the Lord’s Test were credit to his athletic agility and the sureness of his clutch. Unhappily those he missed showed how far his reactions have slowed.

Here then was a man fit to be measured alongside two of the great post-War all-rounders — Gary Sobers who watched the Lord’s Test through a retina now back in place after an expensive and complicated operation in Miami recently and Richie Benaud who saw the game as part of the BBC TV commentary team.

Botham was more than just England’s most charismatic cricketer, of course. Like Muhammad Ali he managed to stride across the ropes that usually hold back sportsmen when it comes to discussing the Man of the Year and other such concepts. Quietly at first and then, when he saw the value, with increasing publicity, Botham took on board the cause of children with leukemia after a visit to a hospital when the plight of these innocents reduced him to tears and made him realise that as a fit and healthy young athlete he was a lot luckier than some around him. So he walked thousands of miles with a bunch of friends, but particularly with his special mate the journalist Chris Lander, to raise money so that more research could be done for finding a cure. He strode the famous British walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End, he romped through Ireland, he tramped Hannibal’s route through the Alps to the amazement of the French and Italians who had never heard his name and he followed the east coast of England from Scotland to East Anglia. The result was a million pounds and more towards research and a new place in the hearts of the British people for the enigmatic Botham.

There were those who sneered that he did it only to make up for other misdemeanours — although not in his hearing I should add — but if he gained merit by those acts, they were merely a sideshow to the main event.

For the simple truth about Botham was that he was and, I guess always will be, a big man. He played his cricket hard but I never heard even his most aggressive opponent accuse him of anything underhand. He hated cheating in all its minor and major forms and when on one occasion in Australia he was recalled by an opposing captain who thought he had been wrongly given out Botham got himself out immediately. He and I did not always get along in harmony. I thought his attitude to soft drugs was wrong and said so. He sent a message of agreement. I wrote that when he announced he would not tour with England again, the rest of the team yawned and he confronted me and demanded to know who in a furious row that awoke half the residents of an Adelaide hotel.

I would not have had this big, loud, warm-hearted extrovert any other way. He could be coarse and foolish but which young sportsman is not. He had a poor record as captain of England yet with Somerset he was sometimes shrewd and always considerate. If he had led England at 30 instead of 24 the history of his life and the game of cricket might have been different. Best of all he added colour and zest and personality to a game that has had more than its share of bright, lively characters. Vic Marks, his long-term team-mate at Somerset, put it this way. “There is no game in which Botham is playing in which he will not leave an impression. You can be in the middle of a sleepy match that is dying of boredom when he will suddenly turn and chase with that struggling, surging stride of his and catch a steepling chance that is dropping at third man when no one else would even bother to pursue it.”

That was the greatness of Botham. That he had energy to spare. “Oh my God, he’s bored,” I once heard Gower say as Botham prowled a tour hotel poolside looking for minor mischief. “What is he going to do now?” He did not relish tours to the subcontinent — “Pakistan is a place you would not send your mother-in-law to” he said. Botham would still die for his team, still throw his last ounce of energy into the fray, still bat all day to save a match or bowl until his groin or his hamstring or his knees, rebuilt spine and much plastered fingers gave out.

Now there is the sign of a stomach too large, the reactions have slowed; Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram get through when once Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding found his bat was too quick; and the great batsman waits for the increasing number of bad balls.

He still has a fine cricketing brain, a tactical awareness that cannot be learnt in less than ten years and he still desperately wants to succeed. “I’ll be back,” he said, echoing General McArthur, after hearing the squad for the third Test. 

Those romantic souls who wish him well in history as we have always wished him well on the field hope he will now recognise that his day is done.

This article was published in The Sporstar on July 11, 1992.