SALUTING SIR BEEFY

The mouthy teenager whose bowling was considered a joke grew into the greatest England all-rounder, one of sport's most colourful characters and a tireless, generous fundraiser. Now he is Sir Beefy. By Vic Marks.

Botham, who received knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, whom he so fervently admires, is an ardent monarchist and during the 1992 World Cup he walked out of an official pre-final dinner when an Australian `entertainer' had the temerity to ridicule his head of state.

But for those of us who knew him as a brash, guffawing, uncomplicated 15-year-old with a liking for lager, the notion of Sir Beefy still prompts some bewilderment. Perhaps we should have learnt not to underestimate Botham by now.

I had to blink more than once, for example, in May 2000 when I saw Ian appear in the pulpit of Wells cathedral to give an address. The occasion was the funeral of Chris Lander, cricket correspondent of the Daily Mirror and a long-time friend. Lander had been on the first walk from John O'Groats to Land's End in aid of Leukaemia Research, the charity for which Botham has worked with such commitment after a visit to a Taunton hospital in the mid-Eighties. There have been 10 more walks since then and Botham has walked 6,000 miles in helping to raise about GBP 10m.

Back in 1985 Lander had travelled north to cover the story and had only intended to be away for a day or two. He stayed to the end; Botham would not let him go and Lander was famously game for anything. Botham had — still has — the power to mesmerise and dominate those in his circle.

Towards the end of that walk, I joined for a stretch. Botham's route took him past my house in Devon, a point where it seemed convenient to withdraw. Sensing desertion he grabbed me by the scruff and there was no alternative to another 10 miles. It's hard to argue with Botham on almost any subject and just when you think you might be getting somewhere he comes up with: "And how many Test wickets did you get?"

Just down the road from Wells cathedral I have watched him tread the boards of the Theatre Royal in Bath, slapping his thighs in pantomime. Yet I doubt whether Botham was a member of the drama society of Buckler's Mead school in Yeovil in the Sixties. He just wanted to hit cricket balls, kick footballs and have a good time with his mates.

There were also the promises of a Hollywood career, which sadly Ian believed when they were suggested to him by his agent in the Eighties. Since retiring from cricket Botham has returned to the stage again with the odd cricket show with Sir Vivian Richards and Allan Lamb; he has dabbled in sports management, there have been more walks, but most of the time cricket enthusiasts see him on Sky Sports, usually avoiding the commentator's trap that enraged him as a player: "Well, in my day..."

He has lived in the same house in North Yorkshire for two decades and, against the odds, has lived with the same wife, Kath — long-suffering, devoted and shrewd — for almost three. She is deserving of the title `Lady Botham' though will not adopt any airs or graces as a consequence. Ian still takes a drink, but no longer lager. He drinks fine wine, so fine — and costly — that some of his Sky colleagues are wary of a night out.

Even before he developed a taste for expensive wine, a night out with Botham was a risk; a wise man concocted an exit strategy. Botham has always been blessed with a constitution that can accommodate large volumes of alcohol and still function the following day. In the Eighties some serious cricketers were `Beefied', to Somerset's advantage. Surrey once had in their side the West Indian bowler Sylvester Clarke, who was fast and nasty — until a night out with Botham on the tequila. The following day Clarke was to be found groaning under a table in the Weston-super-Mare dressing room. A home victory ensued.

For all Botham's great charity work, it is as a cricketer that he will gain a touch of immortality. Yet no one took him that seriously in the early Seventies. When Peter Roebuck and I, future Somerset colleagues, played for the Public Schools against the English Schools Cricket Association in 1971, Botham was made 13th man for our opponents, not a role he relished. He left the ground in high dudgeon and set off for the West Country.

By 1974 he had overtaken us. We were working in the Taunton scoreboard when Botham hinted to a wider audience that here was something special. In a one-day match against Hampshire the West Indian paceman Andy Roberts bowled a bouncer that thudded, via the glove, into Botham's mouth. He spat the teeth out and went on to win the game alongside a couple of hopeless tail-enders. Both of us were willing him to do it.

Botham, a friend of Roebuck's for almost a decade, would fall out with him spectacularly in 1986 when Viv Richards and Joel Garner were sacked while Roebuck was captain of Somerset. It was an ugly episode, which revealed that Botham, rightly renowned as the most loyal of friends, could also be the worst of enemies. That rift has never healed. Likewise Botham and Ian Chappell, seemingly hewn from the same stone, have not spoken since a set-to in a Melbourne bar in 1977.

Even in 1974 the idea that this man would become the leading wicket-taker in England's history was fanciful in the extreme. At the Lord's Groundstaff, a training school for young cricketers, his bowling was treated as a joke. There were wiser heads at Taunton: Tom Cartwright, the coach, and captain Brian Close, with whom the young Botham had wonderfully entertaining rows and much in common, both saw his potential and encouraged and counselled him. The young Botham listened, not that he would have wanted to give that impression.

By 1977 Botham was taking five wickets on his debut for England at Trent Bridge. By 1980, at the age of 24, he was England's captain. For cricket followers just to mention the next year — 1981 — conjures all the images.

First Botham resigns as captain, about 30 seconds before he was going to be sacked. Mike Brearley is recalled; at Headingley England are out of the game before Botham, the shackles removed, clouts a carefree 149 not out.

Against the odds, 500-1 to be precise, England win. In the following Test at Edgbaston Botham takes five wickets for two runs to deprive the Australians of victory; at Old Trafford he smashes a brilliant 100. The Ashes are won. Botham's Ashes.

Botham has always had a love/hate relationship with that series. I once asked him which was his favourite Test and he ignored anything in 1981.

Instead he chose the Brisbane Test of 1986-87. He scored a century; England won that series and he enjoyed being a senior member of a contented team.

The achievements of 1981 would haunt him. For a start they gave credence to the view, which Botham never accepted, that he was unsuitable to captain England. Without the captaincy he was a lethal player again. It helped the side if Botham could play irresponsibly and it's hard for the captain to do that. There was one other problem: how do you follow that? Most of us are not hampered by the knowledge that we have already reached the pinnacle of our careers before the age of 30. Botham was in that position by the autumn of 1981.

There were triumphs to come, though throughout his career Botham could never dominate West Indies. But there were traps too. Like so many sportsmen given superstar status, he began to feel invincible: he expected to succeed on the day without the necessary preparation; he assumed no one would have the temerity to report any of his off-field excesses. Soon there were stories of broken beds and allegations of drug-taking. In 1986 he admitted to taking recreational drugs and was briefly banned from the game.

If Botham did indeed recognise that he could never touch again the heights of 1981 then this realisation may have driven him to set other goals and fund-raising provided a worthwhile one. Soon he was walking through Britain and across the Alps. Fundraising became almost as important as cricket and it did a flagging public image no harm either.

Botham has always had astonishing energy. As a cricketer his greatest asset was that he was brave enough to give himself the leeway to succeed, or fail, spectacularly. He refused to fear failure. Moreover, he has always been instinctively generous. But it costs him. On England's 1982-83 tour of Australia he buttonholed a couple of team-mates to accompany him on a visit to a local sportsman, recently paralysed in an accident. In the cab to the hospital he was nervous, cadging cigarettes and chain-smoking. In the hospital he was brilliant, joking with the patients, charming the nurses; it was a charismatic tour de force. Back in the cab exhaustion set in. He did not have to do it. But he had promised.

We should not take all those charitable efforts for granted. I still can't quite believe it and it still seems mildly hilarious but I'll salute Sir Beefy.

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007

AP

Born: Ian Terence Botham, 24 November, 1955, in Heswall, Cheshire. Son of Leslie and Marie Botham. Family moved to Yeovil, where his father worked at Westland Helicopters.

Educated at the town's Buckler's Mead secondary school. Married to Kath, three children; son Liam was a professional rugby player.

Best of times: The Ashes series of 1981, commonly known as `Botham's Ashes'. His performances were the key factor in England winning the series. (He says he prefers the Brisbane Test of the 1986-87 England Ashes tour, when he scored a century.) His GBP 10m raised for charity. And now his knighthood.

Worst of times: His short spell as England captain - which preceded the glories of 1981. Banned in 1986 for cannabis use. Being described as one of David Brent's role models in The Office.

What he says: "It's always good beating the Australians - and it's even better to beat them out there. But the Ashes is just one thing. Ask me for the biggest highlight when I'm lying on my deathbed - then I'll tell you."

What Graham Gooch says: He's been England's foremost cricketer of the past 30 years and he's put in all that hard work and all those miles for a fantastic cause. He's been the people's champion for cricket. He was a cricketer who put bums on seats.