Come here, Botham

Paul Foot

  • High, Wide and Handsome. Ian Botham: The Story of a Very Special Year by Frank Keating
    Collins, 218 pp, £10.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 00 218226 2

The first chapter heading of this book asks: ‘Is Botham in?’ The answer is yes, he is – just. He was selected for England in the last Test against New Zealand, but only grudgingly. Mike Gatting, England’s captain, explained that the real problem was Botham’s bowling. Botham took a wicket with his first ball, another the next over, another soon after that. Then he scored an astonishing 59 not out in 32 balls. Before long, he was having a row with Somerset County Cricket Club Committee, which sacked his two friends Richards and Garner. The row seemed to inspire him. He ended the season with the most sustained display of boundary-hitting in the history of the game. Cricket lovers everywhere rejoiced – not just, I think, at the glory of the stroke play but because every Botham six and every Botham wicket cocked a mighty snook at the gentlemen of the MCC and the Test and County Cricket Board.

Most people who hate cricket complain about its dreariness. Nothing ever happens, they protest, and takes an inordinately long time about it. Fanatics such as myself – and there is nothing you can do about it once you have caught the cricket bug, it eats away at your better judgment for the whole of the rest of your life – reply that the dreariest parts of the game are often the most intriguing.

The hypnosis which the game works on us comes from the extraordinary balance between batting and bowling, a balance which almost always reasserts itself, just as one side is established in the ascendant. What appears to others as dreary is often just the balance holding steady, with batsmen and bowler unable to shift it in either direction. This claim, trotted out so often as an excuse for taking time off to watch cricket even when the weather is cold and nothing appears to be happening, will not really do, however. All of us who use it know that in the last resort the balance only fascinates because it can be broken; and when the balance is broken, fascination turns into delight.

Great specialist batsmen such as Geoffrey Boycott or Sunil Gavaskar afford endless hours of pleasure to fanatics. The same goes for great specialist bowlers such as Ray Lindwall or Lance Gibbs. Any one of those, and many, many others like them, can break the balance. They do so by steady control, correctness, discipline, line, length, rhythm. They are specialists up against other specialists, and even a BBC commentator can follow what is going on.

But there are times when the balance is broken to pieces, when all the rules and disciplines are put to flight. These are the times which open cricket up to people who are not fanatics. They are brought about, almost always, by the great all-rounders – cricketers who are top-class batsmen and bowlers at the same time, who refuse to say which role they prefer, and who can on any day be as good at one as at the other. Such players invariably upset specialists, commentators and authorities. The reason for this is that they are, literally, care-free when they bat and when they bowl. When a specialist batsman fails – a little nick at the ball outside the offstump – his very livelihood is in jeopardy. The same fate threatens a specialist bowler when he fails to get that little nick, and ends up with nought for 60 in 20 overs. But the all-rounder bats and bowls knowing that if he fails, he can redeem his failure in the other role. So it is that, for the fanatics as well, the great all-rounders are the greatest gifts to an already gift-laden game.

The name of the greatest all-rounder of all time is not in any doubt. It is Gary Sobers. I speak as an authority, ever since at the age of 19 I sat for two days on a desperately uncomfortable tin roof overlooking Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, and watched him knock off the highest ever score in a Test Match (365) as if he was playing French cricket in a back garden. He wasn’t remotely worried if he failed to get the runs, because he would then take the new ball, and try another record. If that failed, he could turn on his slow Chinaman, which he bowled better than anyone else in the world.

After Sobers, who? Some Australians who grew up when I did argue with some force for Keith Miller. As Frank Keating’s book proves, however, Miller can quickly be rejected for second place. It goes, unquestionably, to Ian Botham. Indeed in one crucial respect, Botham beats even the great Sobers himself. Only 22 times in over a thousand Test matches has a player taken five wickets in an innings and scored a hundred in the same match. Frank Keating tells us: ‘Thirteen players have done it once; two – Sobers and Mushtaq Mohammad – have done it twice. Ian Botham has done it five times.’

Even more than Gary Sobers, Ian Botham exudes that care-free quality which marks the really great all-rounders. Sobers still has the record for the number of sixes in one over (fortunately televised). But Botham is a hitter of sixes to beat even Sobers hollow. One of the facts which inspired Frank Keating to write this book is that Botham’s 80 sixes in the 1985 season was a County Cricket record. In one astonishing innings in July 1985 he hit the skilled Warwickshire attack for 13 sixes out of a total of 138 not out – that is more than half his huge score in sixes alone! These sixes are not wild slogs. If they were, there could not be so many of them. Ian Botham hits in a glorious straight arc, with tremendous strength and accuracy. He obeys all the rules of the specialist but beats the specialist because he dares. He risks the absurd shot on the wide ball. No wonder, as Keating chronicles, that anyone who is the slightest bit interested in cricket shows some interest when Botham is in; and that the health and prosperity of the game in England depend heavily on his contribution.

Yet here is the mystery. This year, and last year, in his prime, at the peak of his success, Botham has been harassed by the gentlemen who run British cricket. Just before Christmas 1984, after what was plainly a set-up, Botham’s house was raided by police. They went straight to a bag in a drawer in his bedroom, at the bottom of which they found 1.8 grammes of cannabis. He was convicted of possession, and fined. The hoo-haa in the press and from the authorities could hardly have been greater if Botham had tortured his best friend to death. Soon afterwards, the Mail newspapers started to persecute him with ‘reminiscences’ of a young woman who said he had smoked drugs on tour in Australia.

Botham unwisely sued for libel. The Mail, in its defence, organised ‘investigators’ to scavenge in his dustbins, and to dredge up any unfavourable gossip. As part of a deal to get the Mail off his back, Botham agreed to an article under his name in which he admitted he had smoked cannabis in his youth. Almost anyone who was a kid in the late Sixties or early Seventies could say the same, but the reaction from the authorities was astonishing. They banned Botham for most of the 1986 season, and deprived the dwindling and long-suffering cricketing public of their greatest entertainment. The barnacled boffins of the game weighed in. Fred Trueman, the Alf Garnett of cricket, said: ‘Botham couldn’t even bowl a long-hop.’ Denis Compton said: ‘He is a yobbo, who was never as good as he thinks.’ Peter May and his selectors refused even to pick Botham for England after the ban had expired.

Was all this really because the game had been ‘brought into disrepute’ through Botham’s article on cannabis? Cannabis is illegal, but it is not dangerous, as far as anyone in the world can discover. Nor is it addictive. There is some evidence (though even that is doubtful) that it leads to harder drugs, but what drug doesn’t? Botham’s confession that he had smoked the stuff in his youth was full of (rather uncharacteristic) remorse, and was plainly the result of a shabby legal deal. Can this absurd and extravagant punishment on all cricket lovers, backed up by all that absurd and extravagant language (Botham will live far longer in the record books than will Trueman or Compton, magnificent cricketers though both were), really have been because of cannabis?

I suspect there is much more to it than that. Micky Boulter, shop steward at the British Oxygen Company in Hackney in the days when there was a British manufacturing industry, knew as much about football as anyone I have ever met. He once described the typical English football boss as ‘a blue-tie manager’. I never stopped to ask where the expression came from, so obvious was its meaning. Cricket, even more than football, is plagued by ‘blue-tie managers’ – narrow-minded, small-hearted, utterly reactionary. Theirs is the attitude of the MCC member at Lords who called out ‘Botham, come here!’ as the great man was passing through the Long Room (the member got a suitably brusque reply, as Frank Keating is happy to report). The ‘blue-tie managers’ like their players to be good-mannered and properly dressed, and above all to know their place. They prefer mediocrity on the field to insubordination off it. The attitude extends to their appreciation of cricket. They favour what Keating, in another phrase whose origin is uncertain but whose meaning plain, describes as ‘business strokes’. When Botham was bowled in a Test match suddenly trying a ‘reverse sweep’, Peter May held a press conference. ‘I have thumbed through the MCC coaching manual and found that no such stroke exists,’ he told reporters. ‘No such stroke exists,’ and yet, as Keating shows in a splendid rejoinder, most of the really great batsmen (not Peter May) have used it at one time or another. If players wear extravagant clothes which are not in the MCC manual, cutting their hair in a way which is not laid down in the MCC manual, and playing strokes which are not in the MCC manual, then what next? Might not the MCC manual itself be challenged? Might not the hierarchical, snobbish, undemocratic control of British cricket be threatened at its very base? Like Sir Lester Deadlock in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, who suspected a budding Wat Tyler in every guest who did not know with what cutlery to eat fish, the controllers of cricket jump with horror at every originality or improvisation lest it undermine their own long, lamentable rule.

Frank Keating has done a great service not just to Ian Botham but to all English cricket with this marvellous book. His object is simple: to come to Botham’s aid in his hour of need, and to put the record straight about him. He has followed Botham’s astonishing 1985 season through every major match, describing and assessing each achievement. No one is better qualified to do that. For my money, Keating is the country’s top sports writer by a long distance (and there are many other good ones). He writes pretty well about any sport, but cricket is ingrained in him from his birth and upbringing not many miles from the places where W.G. Grace performed his miracles. But the book is not just a tribute from Frank Keating. From almost every county ground, professional cricketers and umpires, old-timers and young-timers, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians are quoted in unstinting praise not only for Ian Botham’s cricketing ability but for the open-hearted and generous way he plays the game. Almost all of them emphasise his friendship with his sporting opponents – something the blue-tie managers find deeply suspicious, if not treacherous.

I am sorry to read in this book that Ian Botham is an ‘independent Tory’ and (worse) that he admires Mrs Thatcher. But I am not inclined to mix politics with sport. Indeed, the worst damage done to cricket since the war has been that mixing of politics with sport which knocked South Africa out of international cricket. The supporters of apartheid mixed politics with sport so shamefully that they banned people from playing cricket with one another because of the colour of their skin. This outrage, which brought the entire sport into disrepute, was greeted with unconcern by the same MCC gentlemen who have apoplexy when cricketers say they smoked pot when they were kids. Racialism is a million times more damaging to cricket than cannabis. Where does Ian Botham stand on that?

He was offered, literally, a million pounds if he and his friend Viv Richards went to South Africa as part of the public relations circus for that country’s racialist politics. He refused point blank. ‘It was a hell of a lot of money,’ he told Frank Keating.

I said: ‘What happens if Viv and I want to travel together? Or drive together? Or stay in the same hotel?’ One of the guys said: ‘Oh, no problem there at all. We’ll make Viv an honorary white man.’ That was it. Honorary white man! So if I go to Barbados and want to play cricket in Antigua, am I made an honorary black man? It’s balls, the whole thing’s total bollocks.

Ian Botham refused to join his England teammates in their inglorious excursions to South Africa. When some Yorkshire representatives of the master race booed Viv Richards, Ian Botham was the first publicly to denounce them. And when a typical blue-tie manager from that county’s cricket club (which still refuses to play a black man) came on the radio with typical blue-tie derision, Botham at once denounced him personally.

Ian Botham is a bitter enemy of racialism in sport, and so makes a poor Tory. If he continues, as he will, to lambast apartheid, he won’t be asked too often to take tea with the Thatchers. When he suddenly decided, at the end of his astonishing 1985 season, to march from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for leukaemia research, there was, as Frank Keating persuasively proves, not an ounce of self-publicism in it. He knew his stunt could raise money, so he performed it – at great physical cost. Everyone quoted in the book comments on the infectious warmth of the man as he made his way south. But then he threw a punch at an interfering traffic cop. Much worse, he attacked the big companies for the paltry contribution they made to his appeal. He had discovered an old truth: ‘the less people have; the more they give.’ He gave voice to it angrily. And the blue-chip brigade, like the blue tie brigade, grumbled over their lunches.

I have a serious quarrel with Frank Keating. He does terrible damage to adjectives. Adjectives are precious things, to be used always sparingly, with affection. They are (to make the point in nouns) the cream in the coffee, the salt in the stew. Too much, too randomly applied, ruins everything. Far too often, Frank Keating introduces his characters with two (or even three) slack adjectives. On one page we meet a ‘strong and handsome’ Simon O’Donnell, a ‘snarling, aggressive, straight-backed’ Geoff Lawson, a ‘swift hostile Craig McDermott’, a ‘wicked old Jeff Thomson’, a ‘gritty, youthful Doug Walters’ and a ‘simpering sad Greg Matthews’. Phew! as Frank Keating would say. This sort of thing is bound to get ridiculous, and it does. On page 129 the unfortunate Greg Ritchie is described as ‘pleasantly precocious, puppy-plump and pugnacious-looking’.

Frank doesn’t write like this for the Guardian-does he have a good and faithful sub there who cuts out adjectives? There are some other examples of overwriting here. But not many. This is, despite these excesses, a delightful, challenging book, one of the best on cricket I have read for many a long year. It is enriched with Keating’s prodigious memory for great cricketing occasions on almost every county ground. It is also beautifully produced (though, inexplicably, without an index). Best of all, it will make life even more exciting next time Botham’s in.