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.

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