Iron Bottom, Iron Bell


NOVEMBER 21: Robert Padmore, one of the Barmy Army, watches the day's cricket, returns to his hotel, changes into new clothes, walks down to the lobby to meet his pals and distressingly, falls down dead from a heart problem. The medical staff with the England party rush to his aid but it is too late. Robert's death saddens me because I meet him for the first time as we begin the trip from Multan to Faisalabad and, just by a coincidence, he lives not far from my home. The cricket authorities in Pakistan are moved to erect a plaque in his memory in the hotel reception area and, lo and behold, it is in place the next morning. Of course, there are some people who know nothing except cricket which accounts for a strange incident at the nets as a "bomb" — which turns out to be an exploding gas canister — goes off and frightens a great many people. Matthew Maynard is giving throw downs to one of the young players at the nets when there is this enormous bang. "What the hell is that noise?" shouts the batsman. "I don't know," says Maynard. "I think you must have hit the ball right at the bottom of the bat." There is only a brief hold-up to the Test and the game continues after the police — and there are thousands of them around the ground — deal very efficiently with the explosion and the resulting wreckage. But at least one policeman is less than careful. He loses a large calibre bullet, which is retrieved from the outfield next morning, an incident which gives one or two players a moment of concern lest there are sinister forces at work.

November 22: We superior British types — still thinking we can divide and rule, according to a BCCI spokesman — love tales of the mispronunciation of our names by foreigners. So the tale Ian Botham being known throughout Pakistan as Iron Bottom is told a million times a year by everyone from tour newcomers to after-dinner speakers. Now England have a new Ian — known to the press box scorer as Iron Bell. So let me have my own bit of fun. Calling him Iron Bell is a clanger, isn't it? Sorry about that.

November 23: What in the name of everything that is good in cricket does Shahid Afridi think he is doing, dirty dancing his way round the pitch? Mohammad Idrees, in his own way, the Pakistani equivalent of the famed English commentator John Arlott, expresses this concern best in an emotional comment on the Radio Pakistan Urdu service. "How can I as a Pakistani look people in the eye this morning when Shahid Afridi has committed such a gross act?" he says. I know one English Test captain whose grandfather and father were both disciplined in league cricket for the same offence — before he completes a very odd hattrick! The England players on the 1984-5 tour of India still speak with wonder verging on admiration about an Indian player who bats with what they call "crampons" on his boots, hoping to achieve the same effect. Ball tampering, bat widening, pitch scuffing — is there nothing these guys will not do to win a cricket match?

November 24: It's seems to be party time and Ian Botham marks his birthday with some style by arranging dinner at Lahore Golf Club for a dozen friends. By all accounts it is a quiet affair although that is a sentence I think I will never write. He is still using his mobile a lot, by the way. I mark the day by asking him which of the modern hitters — the men like Botham circa 1981 — he admires most. He enjoys them all — Gilchrist, Flintoff, Pietersen, Afridi and Cairns — and says, "This is the way the modern batsman plays. It is an attacking era. Mind you, on this ground" — pointing to the Faisalabad Stadium — "it is tempting to swing the bat." I tease him: "Just like Taunton." He gives me a long look. "Yes, except for the pitch which was about twice as quick as this . . ." I will leave you to imagine the rest.

November 25: In many countries the great British cricket touring group — Barmy Army, journalists, cricketers and the rest — head for the bar when boredom gets a grip but that is not possible in Pakistan so more formal relaxations are needed. That is why tonight we all gather in the Emerald Room of our hotel for a quiz night. A dozen teams of four answering questions set by David "Bumble" Lloyd and Paul Allott, the Sky commentators on such varied subjects as cricket, history, pop music — Bumble's specialist subject since he is nicknamed for a group — and geography. Some low life tabloid journalists win first prize, which consists of a set of wide-brimmed hats. Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff and Steve Harmison turn up late and are presented with an alarm clock apiece. The devil makes play for idle hands once again and Flintoff obtains the key to Bumble's room and hides one of the alarm clocks behind the television set. Set for 5 a.m. When he is wakened — just in time for the call to prayer — he has to search for an hour before he finds the source of all that ringing. Five hours later he is walking through the hotel lobby so I say: "Bumble, talk us through your wake-up call" and note that he is grinning happily which probably means he already works on his revenge. On a more serious note, we raise 550 pounds sterling for the earthquake victims and the Cricket Writers' Club promises as much again so we have not just had fun and games.

November 26: George Best, maybe the greatest of all footballers, dies in hospital aged 59, leaving me to reflect on my only meeting with the man and the way he is adored by Denis Law, his team mate at Old Trafford. Alex Higgins, then just about the greatest snooker player on the planet, asks me to arrange a meeting between the two of them. Higgins is a big fan, they both come from Belfast and Higgins thinks he can improve Best's snooker. I go to the one spot where Best hangs out regularly and there he is, standing in the doorway of his boutique, surrounded by his bunch of rather unpleasant pals. I introduce myself and state my message. He does not answer. I hand him Higgins' phone number. He allows it to fall to the ground. I say: "Do I get the message that you want to know nothing about this kind offer?" One of his friends tells me to leave before something unpleasant happens. I go. I guess that in those days Best can afford to be arrogant. Anyway, some 10 years later I mention this incident to Law who lives near me in Manchester. He tells me: "Best is a great man as well as a great footballer and, ok one time he misjudges a situation with you, but generally he is the nicest man on earth." That may be true, but when I run into a little trouble with a mob in Delhi after Mrs. Gandhi is assassinated and it gets into all the papers, Law is the only person in Britain to go out of his way to find out if I survive intact. Now Denis is a nice guy.

November 27: Is Brian Lara the greatest of them all? I only ask, as he scrawls his name all over the record books once again, because I know I will never get a "yes" out of Australia where they will brook no challenger to their belief that Don Bradman is top of the pile. The Don has a marvellous average, puts every team in sight to the sword and plays in Tests until he is 40. But, I have the word of several eye-witnesses to the fact that he was a three-shot wonder. His greatness comes from his ability to judge length quickly and so get into position with time to spare. Compare that with Lara, playing sweeps from the off stump, driving through the covers, pulling and hooking; still, aged 36, dancing down the pitch and slogging Shane Warne, who is an all-time giant. The world aggregate record in Test cricket is just a start. Lara has 9,300 runs in one-day internationals, too. At least he makes us think again about the Bradman legend.