‘I put up my finger at the establishment and The press’

In sporting terms Botham is an undisputed colossus and his cricketing success was built on the back of a single-minded belief, and sheer selfishness, that hurt his family terribly. But, for all his faults and failings, he has also raised £10m for leukaemia research. By Donald Mcrae.

Early morning, a day before his knighthood, as the fast train from Darlington clattered towards London, Ian Botham seemed unusually thoughtful. His words were carefully measured and savoured as he remembered his very first train journey to London 36 years ago. In August 1971, at the age of 15 and on his way for a trial to join the ground staff at Lord’s, he had travelled with his mum.

“They offered me a place immediately and I was back down again, on my own, the following Monday. That’s when my adult life started — leaving home to become a professional cricketer. And that’s what makes it so special to have my mum in London to join us when me and (my wife) Kath and our grandsons go to the Palace,” said Botham.

Botham flicked away a bead of sweat with the old nonchalance. “They’re coming up with all kinds of names for me now and Sirloin of Beef was the first good one. I don’t mind. The monarchy stands for everything that makes me proud to be English. I’m a massive royalist.”

My eyes, presumably, had begun to glaze at that point because a Beefy fist came crashing down. “I listen to all these republicans,” Botham thundered, “and if it was down to me I’d hang ’em! I honestly would. It’s a traitor’s game for me.”

Botham’s candour, however, can be moving rather than just amusing. He contemplated, with rare seriousness, the prickly selfishness and contrasting selflessness which underpin not so much his knighthood as his life. In sporting terms Botham is an undisputed colossus and his cricketing success was built on the back of a single-minded belief, and sheer selfishness, that hurt his family terribly. But, for all his faults and failings, he has also raised £10m for research into leukaemia.

In his new autobiography he details the pain he caused Kath for decades. “We’ve been married 30 years and I put Kath through hell. Brian Close was one of the first people we told we were getting married and he was perceptive. He knew how tough it would be for Kath. He could see I had the narrow-mindedness to get to where I wanted to be as a cricketer and Kath did not stand a chance against that — and her sufferance of my selfishness, her patience, her bringing up three children I hardly saw, could only have been endured by an exceptionally strong person. We’re still together — and that’s down to Kath. I hold my hand up. I screwed up and nearly lost the person who was the best mate I ever had. But I don’t believe in regret because I think everything happens for a reason.”

Would Kath feel the same? “I’m not sure I’d want to ask Kath that question. But from my point of view we’re stronger and closer than ever.”

Botham insists that his generous charity is not linked to a subconscious guilt about his sporting ego. “I really don’t think so. I just came across four young boys dying of leukaemia in a hospital ward in 1977. I was ignorant and couldn’t believe these kids would soon be dead. I’d also just broken the bone in my foot so my mind was off cricket. Maybe that’s why I became so absorbed and asked all these questions. And one of the qualities I do have is that when I start something I finish it. I’m as heavily involved in leukaemia as ever. It feels like my life’s work.”

This comes from a man who cheerfully admits that at school in Yeovil he was called Bungalow — “Meaning,” Botham grins as he taps his head, “nothing upstairs”. Yet his poignant friendship with John Arlott, a man as bright and cultured as Botham could be crude and reactionary, contains some of the most affecting pages in his book.

“I met John when I was 17 and took his picnic basket up to the commentary box. There were four bottles of Beaujolais in that basket. Being a cider-boy I thought wine was a namby-pamby drink.

But I was gripped as John started talking to me, this dumb yokel, about wine. His command of English just rolled off him. He got out some cheese and said this goes best with that wine. ‘Go on,’ he’d say, ‘have a taste.’ Our incredible friendship started and he became my mentor. These days they call ’em ‘life-gurus’ or some such crap.”

It is hard to imagine Kevin Pietersen befriending a man as different to him and Botham as the former Guardian writer. “But John was a proper person. In the last seven years of his life when we both had places on Alderney I had two meals a day with him whenever I was on the island. At six minutes past nine every morning the phone would ring. John would say, ‘C’mon over — and bring your thirst with you.’ ”

“At the end when the emphysema took over and he was struggling with speech he had an oxygen mask and I often had to empty his bag for him. But he liked me being there because I knew to wait and let him finish his sentences between gasps. I didn’t try to say the words for him because I knew how much they mattered. That was strange for me — to be patient and quiet. But I always wanted to listen to John.”

Arlott’s one cricketing regret was retiring from commentary a year before the Ashes Test of Headingley in 1981 and Botham’s miraculous innings of 149 just after resigning the captaincy. “There was some anger in that knock because when I announced my resignation Alec Bedser (the chairman of selectors) said, ‘We were about to fire him.’ I thought ‘You plonker!’ To be brutal, the establishment was never happy some guy from an ordinary school in Somerset was captaining England. They were glad to see the back of me.

“When the press asked me who should take over I said ‘Bring back Mike Brearley.’ They listened to me but bloody Bedser took the praise for that. The cheek of the tosser! How did he ever get a knighthood? So at Headingley I put up my finger at the establishment and the press and I came back into the dressing room after the fourth day, having scored my century (off 87 balls), and got out a cigar and had a smoke. I was knackered but, as for Bedser and that lot, I thought bollocks to you. I don’t need any of you.”

That streak of rebellious genius remained. Botham played an even better innings of 118 at Old Trafford later that summer and in subsequent years he would conjure up other unlikely feats — returning from a three-month ban for admitting smoking cannabis to take a wicket with his first long-hop of a ball back in Test cricket. His final delivery, as a professional cricketer, was equally Bothamesque.

“I was playing for Durham, against the Aussies, and David Boon faced my last-ever ball. Booney was struggling for his Test place and was deadly serious. But he just about fell over laughing and shouted, ‘Beefy, you can’t do this to me.’ I was midway though my run-up and he’d spotted that I’d unzipped my fly and hauled out the meat and two veg. The old man was dangling in the wind as I steamed in. If I’d got it on target I would’ve bowled him. I thought it was a nice way to go out.”

It is not an anecdote he will share with the Queen. “She (Queen) actually invited me for tea in 1981. It was a bit like me and John Arlott. I sat and listened.

"To be honest she probably would’ve preferred spending time with one of her racehorses rather than me, but I loved it."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007