Anyone browsing through the Sunday papers the other week would have noticed in one tabloid a large photograph, candidly snapped, no doubt with a lens like a drainpipe, and captioned ‘the picture we’ve all been waiting for’. The picture showed a wistful George Best, garbed in prison overalls, serving his time. It certainly wasn’t my cup of Typhoo (was it really anyone’s?): but it set me pondering about how we treat our heroes. Best’s own case has been well documented, and he is possibly the saddest case of a sporting megastar who has come a cropper through his own and other people’s excesses. Now, instead of remembering the genius, we are reduced to inserting the boot when the man is clearly out for the count.
A Middlesex colleague once remarked to the éminence very grise of English cricket, Mike Brearley, who had just ascended to the England captaincy, that the appointment carried with it not a bejewelled crown but a coconut. The comment was neither lost on Brearley nor forgotten by him afterwards, during the years when he demonstrated the art of captaincy more efficiently than any England captain had ever done before him, while suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous journalists sniping at his apparently inept international batting form. It was like saying that Montgomery couldn’t drive a tank.
Why do we bother to create paragons only to blow apart any who display the slightest character? Who indeed is the creator? I suspect the answer to the latter is not we the punters, but the moguls of the media, who realise that superstars are an expendable interim aid to higher circulations and who supply them accordingly, at the same time effecting a healthy turnover so that we don’t get too bored. The most effective way of doing this is to overturn the stone of excellence in the hope of finding creeply-crawlies beneath.
I mention all that because it will not have escaped attention that Ian Botham’s house was first-footed by the boys in blue over the New Year, that he and his wife were taken into custody and ‘certain substances’ taken away for analysis. Not many will have failed to spot that Botham is soon going to court with a libel action against a newspaper which relates to alleged ‘goings-on’, which he vehemently denies, during England’s cricket tour last winter, and to reflect that these developments are bound to have a bearing on the case. If ever a person was tailor-made for deifying, it is Ian Botham. Ever since, as a teenager with Somerset, he staggered to his size 12’s after being felled by an Andy Roberts bouncer, spat out his teeth and won his first lost cause, he has been grabbing the headlines. We have all marvelled at the power and destructiveness of his batting, the huge bat travelling from a towering backlift through to the highest, straightest follow-through in the game. It is an irresistible combination of hawk-eye, animal strength and timing. Headingley and Old Trafford 1981 are part of cricketing legend now, but those ‘bits of humpty’ as he called them marked him as a truly great Test batsman. His bowling ranges from the brilliantly audacious to the outrageous – dull it isn’t. Sometimes it can be symphonic in its variations, occasionally frustratingly bland and ineffective, and once in a while, when the adrenalin pours into the veins and the red rag is waved, the raging bull charges in to demolish a Test side before you can say Mail on Sunday. He snorts, spits, swears, laughs, and would bang his bouncer in on plasticine, all the time taking wickets that no one else would dare. Finally, there is as fine a close catcher as ever pulled on an England sweater. He stands ridiculously close at second slip, not out of bravado (well, perhaps a bit), but to narrow the angle and allow the other slips more freedom. His lightning reflexes and flypaper hands collect the half chances that might otherwise never carry. Botham’s ability is unquestioned, and allied to a massive self-confidence, the overwhelming desire to beat even his children at tiddlywinks, and a belief in his own indestructibility, it becomes formidable. Anyone who can bring the Stock Exchange to a standstill doesn’t need the media to make him a superstar. His actions speak for themselves.
But Botham had played his heart out for eight straight years and staleness was creeping in. The runs were less evident and the bowling for the most part lacked the penetration of old. He has always bowled like a millionaire, but this one was heading for bankruptcy. In short he was knackered. So he decided enough was enough and retreated to his home in the north to be with his family, relax with a few winter warmers at the local and plod around the football field with his mates at Scunthorpe. He is a tolerable, if ponderous footballer, who once had ambitions in the game. One of his coaches during his formative cricket years on the MCC ground staff was a delightful man called Harry Sharp. His advice to Botham – to our subsequent delight and Harry’s eternal chagrin – was ‘Stick to football, Both.’ There but for fortune ...
While many entertainers display a front bigger than Blackpool’s, Botham’s cricketing persona is a true reflection of his general character. There is a try-anything-once, devil-may-care extraversion about the big bruin that makes him want to learn to fly, drive too fast, stand up to his neck all day in freezing Scottish streams in the hope of a salmon and then sample every whisky known to man in the evening. Heaven help those who try to keep pace. There is an intense loyalty to family, friends, team mates and country (he once, in his pre-Test days, forcibly ejected a former Australian captain from a Melbourne bar for making disparaging remarks about Poms). He appreciates much less talented colleagues and opponents who display honest endeavour. Where the tolerance stops short is at such invasion of his privacy as affects his family – which point he has not understated and which has resulted in a deterioration of his relationship with the media. Even cricket’s authorities, who perhaps should make special allowances for a special asset, came to look on him as a problem child. Perhaps the final indignity was a £1,000 fine for remarking that he wouldn’t even send his mother-in-law to Pakistan. Well, really!
The folly of it all is becoming clearer now. Botham wanted breathing space and instead he is being suffocated. Everyone’s patience has a bottom line and I suspect Botham is close to his. Surely we would all like to see him revitalised and rampaging once more across the Test arena. What a tragedy it would be if this great cricketer quietly stuck up two fingers and called it a day.