Legends: Ian Botham

What can be said of Ian Botham that has not already been said a thousand times over? He has crammed more adventure into his life than most ordinary mortals could dare to dream of. He has at times had the country gripped by his exploits on and off the pitch, has transcended the sport he adorned and has generated more column inches than any other English cricketer with the possible exception of W. G. Grace. He is a working class hero, a scourge of the establishment, a free spirit with the heart of a lion, and a roisterer who could out-party most who came within his orbit. A gregarious man, perhaps the only thing Ian Botham ever feared, in truth, was loneliness. Bold and experimental on the field of play (as he has been in life), he was a risk-taker capable of grasping the initiative (whether with bat or ball) in devastating, explosive bursts. Teammates and opponents also marvel at an unparalleled ability to dust himself down and never to dwell on failure or to countenance regret or reticence. If his great friend, Viv Richards, was indomitable, then Ian was indestructible. And plenty of people – among them tabloid hacks and the starchier element in the cricketing hierarchy – have tried to break him and failed in the attempt.

Ian with his close friend and ally Viv Richards

He was born near Heswall, in Cheshire, on 24 November 1955. His father, Les, worked at the time for the Fleet Air Arm and was married to Marie (née Collett), a nurse. By the age of three, Ian had been taken by his parents to live in Yeovil, where Les had secured a job with Westland Helicopters. Ian was educated locally at Milford Junior School and then at Buckler’s Mead Secondary Modern, where from a young age he displayed all the characteristics that would later define him: an outgoing joker, unprepared to bow to authority, a strapping all-round sportsman, fearless in all he did, always up for a challenge and with a low boredom threshold. Facilities might have been limited, and Ian would watch from the bottom of his garden as the boys from the local Grammar School enjoyed their net practice, but his talent and resolve were sufficient to overcome any setbacks. As a thirteen-year-old, his coordination and brute strength enabled him to throw a cricket ball 63.32 metres, causing raised eyebrows among the organisers of the competition. Later, he was a good enough footballer to be offered a trial by Crystal Palace, but on the advice of his father, who adjudged him better at cricket than football, Ian opted for a career in the former, this despite a snub at Under-15 level when he was offered the demeaning role of third-choice twelfth man for an England Schools match. Those who had played with or against him in age group cricket were surprised at the decision, although they admit that it was not yet apparent that he would become a world-beater. If he had been wary of the powers that be, then this event hardened his attitude to those who betrayed too often their prejudice in favour of boys and men who hailed from the fashionable counties and had attended the ‘right’ schools. He was set on a course of being the outsider who raised two fingers to the establishment.

Tom Cartwright – like Ian, an outspoken rebel who never suffered fools gladly – took him under his wing and, already impressed by his clean hitting, taught him how to swing a ball. Here was a young man who needed to be in the thick of the action – as batsman, bowler or fielder – at every point in a match. He had the temperament of an all-rounder but, more than this, for a few heady years, could have walked into any side as either a batsman or a bowler, which took matters to a higher plane. Those productive sessions with Tom Cartwright were in stark contrast to a frustrating time on the Lord’s ground staff. He was big, strong and able to stand up to the bullying culture but – as with other boys from the sticks – was overlooked. Ian would later write that, ‘I don’t fit into London.’ MCC Head Coach Len Muncer would note in Ian’s ‘end of term’ report that he ‘shows a great deal of promise but does everything his own way’.

Back with Somerset, he was part of an exciting cadre of youngsters. A little older than the others was Viv Richards, already clearly a batting genius. If Viv’s unremitting focus was on becoming the best and dominating opponents, then Ian was more likely to be driven by his competitive instincts at any given moment. His instinct was to belt every ball into the stands and to take a wicket with every delivery. His path to greatness was less clearly defined. The presence of Viv acted as a constant spur for Ian to get better and better. The chemistry worked wonders.  

The first headline-grabbing indications of greatness-to-come were in the Benson & Hedges Cup match at Taunton in 1974 when the eighteen-year-old came in at number nine, furious at the indignity of being placed so low in the batting order and with his team looking down the barrel of a gun. Hit in the face by an Andy Roberts bouncer, he staggered but refused to fall before leading the side to an unlikely victory. Two teeth were dislodged and a further two loosened and later removed. Ian regarded this all as a mere inconvenience. The following morning he woke up, after some excessive post-match celebrations, to excruciating toothache and the first of many headlines in the national newspapers.

His rise thereafter was meteoric. At the age of twenty-one he was awarded the first of his 102 Test caps and began as he meant to go on with a five-wicket haul, set on his way with a fortuitous dismissal of Greg Chappell. It was the springboard to a spell of all-round success not just unparalleled but so far ahead of the competition as to be barely believable. It took only twenty Tests to pass the milestone of 100 wickets and 1,000 runs. This was Boy’s Own stuff. The runs and the wickets kept coming and records tumbled. There was controversy along the way. Not everyone took to his merry japes and his propensity for dunking others in swimming pools or dousing them with a water pistol was not universally welcomed. Nor did the powers that be take to his outspokenness and lack of deference. His description of Pakistan, for example, as ‘a place to send your mother-in-law for a month’ demonstrated that tact and diplomacy were not his strongest suits. His mother-in-law took it all in good heart, the Pakistanis less so. By the age of twenty-four, the roistering rebel who played Test cricket with an uninhibited approach that defied all the norms had been made captain of the England team. Perhaps he was unfortunate to take on the captaincy ahead of a challenging run of fixtures against the West Indies. Brian Close warned him, ‘You’ll have the most miserable time of your life.’ But surely few young men in his position would have stood back and watched a lesser mortal take the reins. Maybe he was unlucky or maybe he was not made of the right stuff – the man to lead a charge, an instinctive cricketer, but not an analytical one. Ian himself is implacably of the view that he just happened to hit a run of bad form at the wrong time, that the weight of responsibility borne on those impressive shoulders was no burden at all – and he is ever a man of fixed views, intolerant of nuance and not one to change an opinion.

At Lord’s, in the Second Test against Australia in 1981, he reached his nadir. Desperate to find a run from somewhere, he attempted to sweep Ray Bright’s opening delivery and was bowled – dismissed for a pair. He was greeted by the contemptuous silence of the suited-and-tied MCC members, some of them snubbing him by burying their heads in their favourite daily crossword, their behaviour as boorish as anything the upstart they regarded as an oaf had ever been guilty of. He resigned the captaincy to avoid the ignominy of being sacked, but bounced back, of course. The Australians were simply swept aside, the nation transfixed by Ian’s heroic deeds. If there had been question marks about his ability to carry a team of eleven men under his captaincy, he was certainly able in the summer of 1981 to carry the hopes of a nation of more than fifty million people. It was exhilarating. Peter Roebuck has analysed Ian’s approach to cricket in his insightful book, It Sort of Clicks. Peter was of the opinion that it was Ian Botham alone who transformed cricket from a game of calculation and risk-aversion to one where fearlessness has its reward. He notes that in many aspects, Ian was uncoachable and ploughed his own furrow. It helps if you have superb hand-eye coordination, the strength of an ox, and the ability to wielda railway sleeper of a bat as if it were a stick. Ian Botham ignored the rules. He simply rewrote them. T20 slog-fests perhaps owe much to him, for better or for worse.

"...a working class hero, a scourge of the establishment, a free spirit with the heart of a lion."
“.. a working class hero, a scourge of the establishment, a free spirit with the heart of a lion.”

After the heights of 1981, there was inevitable anti-climax, punctured by glorious moments of greatness. The captaincy of Somerset followed. As with England, there was reluctance on the part of the decision makers, but who among us would be strong enough to stand up against so strong a presence?  He led Somerset to victory in the NatWest Final of 1983 but thereafter trophies proved elusive. In 1985, his batting for the county was sensational, with eighty sixes contributing to a bumper crop of runs, notched up at an average of 91.42. At the same time, his bowling had fallen away. There were mutterings that he had become too big for his boots, that he was orchestrating the Ian Botham Show, not leading Somerset. He was relieved of the captaincy, allowed the dignity of resignation.

Then, a season on, came an angry parting of the ways [documented elsewhere in Somerset Cricketers 1971-2000]. He left having contributed as much as any man to his county’s fortunes. In 172 first-class games for Somerset, he had averaged 36.04 with the bat and taken 489 wickets at 26.52 apiece. For five enjoyable seasons he played for Worcestershire, who claimed five trophies (including two Championships) in that period, while Somerset won nothing. There was then a season and a half before his retirement, helping Durham to establish themselves. His spell in Sheffield Shield cricket with Queensland had ended less happily, following a much-publicised fracas on a flight.

During much of his career, with the tabloids hungry for tales of the country’s most marketable commodity, stories of swashbuckling feats on the field of play were replaced by lurid tales of drink, drugs and women. Having agreed a lucrative contract with the Sun newspaper, it was perhaps inevitable that other papers would come gunning for him. But there were court cases and other controversies, too. Some of his actions were ill-advised, not least allowing himself to fall under the spell of Tim Hudson, a fantasist who had his man dressed in dapper attire and touted him as the next James Bond. Advertising agencies had for a number of years understood his value, and he had endorsed many a product from Saab cars to Shredded Wheat, though a tongue-in-cheek ‘Back on the Grass’ advert by Nike, planned to coincide with the ending of his ban for possession of cannabis, never saw the light of day. When not in the public eye for the wrong reasons, he was feted, quite rightly, for his gruelling and hugely successful walks in aid of Leukaemia Research – sparked by a genuine concern after a visit to Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton – though even his charitable deeds could be mired in some controversy, such as when he pushed aside a police officer he regarded as being too officious.  His appetite for a challenge was seemingly endless. He qualified as a helicopter pilot and he flew with the Red Arrows. Later, he starred for many years in panto.

Ian Botham – a headline writer’s dream!

With such a breathless lifestyle, he needed refuge, away from the public gaze. While he played, his soulmate, Viv Richards, a man exposed to the same pressures, was someone he could turn to. There were other confidantes, most notably Ken Barrington, whose untimely death was a bitter setback. But away from cricket there was Kath and their three children. He proposed to Kathryn (née Waller), three months after meeting her at Grace Road, Leicester, and they were married in 1976. ‘He was quiet and nice and he helped me find my car in the rain,’ she has observed. Kath remained his anchor in the storms. He sought refuge with the family and he found quietude in their home life, initially at Epworth, where he was protected from the media by the locals until one unknown ‘snout’ (to use Ian’s parlance) tipped off the police about a secret stash of cannabis. All hell broke loose and they settled for a while on Alderney in the Channel Isles before a move to North Yorkshire. He remains to this day a country boy at heart. To the annual trips to Callander in pursuit of elusive salmon – it took him nine visits to land his first catch – should be added the usual field sports. Ian is trenchant – would he be otherwise? – in his defence of country pursuits and irritated by what he sees as meddling on the part of townies. He has owned a racehorse, too – named Rely on Guy. He has played football for Yeovil Town and Scunthorpe United. He appeared for eight years on A Question of Sport, alongside rugby international Bill Beaumont. He is equally at home with the rich and famous and the poor and dispossessed. And he has made the transition from fearless punter on the pitch to forceful pundit off it, for Sky.

It is only possible to scratch the surface of an extraordinary life in a matter of pages. Much, much more has been written about him, but treat some of what you read with caution and remember this. Here was arguably the greatest all-rounder of them all, his achievements, in his prime, superhuman. He bowled devastating spells that many a frontline Test bowler could only dream of and hit the ball harder and more cleanly than most specialist batsmen could ever muster. He stood a yard closer to the bat at second slip than most sane men would contemplate and still swallowed up remarkable catches. He fired in the ball from the boundary faster and flatter than most could hope to. But he was human, too. His dirty washing, aired in public, was dirtier than most, his indiscretions more shocking and his misjudgements more profound. His heart was bigger, too, the miles walked and the money raised more than ordinary mortals would accomplish. Whatever his faults, Ian Botham has enriched the lives of many – from those who sat and watched him in awe, fulfilling their dreams for them, to the children suffering from leukaemia. He lifted spirits and he spread hope. In 2007, the rebel was knighted for services to cricket and charity. No longer pilloried, he was now a pillar of the establishment. Yes, he could be overbearing and yes, he got some things horribly wrong, but by and large he has made the world a better place. If you are a supporter of Somerset cricket, raise your eyes and raise your glass if the cricket ever becomes too dull to hold your attention. Look up and read his name on the Sir Ian Botham stand and give thanks for his joyful brand of cricket and the trophies it helped to bring.

Taken from the book Somerset Cricketer’s 1971-2000 by Stephen Hill, including additional research from Julian Wyatt. Published by Halsgrove you can buy this book for £16.99 at Somerset County Sports at the Cooper Associates County Ground or Brendon Books in Bath Place, Taunton.