In 1981, when I was ten and Ian Botham was 26, I thought he was God. Now, the week after Botham turned 60, the 44-year-old me thinks he’s an arse. And that makes me sad.
The world is a simple place when you’re ten. There are heroes and villains, victories and defeats. The very best victories are the ones that were nearly defeats. Headingley 1981, for example. No need for the details — you know them already, not just from the match itself but from the hundreds of documentaries made about it since. I still lap them all up like an addict, silently mouthing along as Richie Benaud describes Botham’s six going ‘into the confectionery stall and out again’. But these days I can’t help feeling that the innings — the whole incredible series — was simultaneously the best and the worst thing ever to happen to Botham. Because it made him a superstar, almost a myth. The only trouble with that is: how do you stop yourself believing your own myth?
Things weren’t just simple for me in the 1980s, they were simple for Botham too. David Gower talks of the team meetings he would conduct as England captain, trying to determine who would field where for which opposing batsman, which bowler’s weaknesses they could exploit and how… only for a visibly bored Botham to pipe up: ‘Can’t we just go out and beat them?’ Fine, Ian — or rather fine for you. You’re a genius, it all came easily to you. But couldn’t you have tried, for once, to put yourself in someone else’s position? That of the rest of the team, who needed to work at it?
It was the same with your legendary ‘socialising’. The England management probably didn’t mind you finishing your last beer just as Graham Gooch started his early-morning jog — they knew your vocabulary omitted the word ‘hangover’, so you could still stroll out a few hours later and launch Imran Khan into the Mound Stand. What they did mind was you taking half your team-mates to the bar with you, rendering them incapable of telling one end of a bat from the other, never mind knowing what to do with it.
But the real problem lies in Botham’s bowling exploits — or rather the way he has reacted to them. He took 383 Test wickets for England, which until this year put him at the top of the all-time list. When James Anderson finally overtook him, Sir Ian offered his congratulations (tempered with an inquiry as to how many Test runs Anderson could muster against his 5,200). For every other person on the planet, though, Botham still employs his usual method of settling arguments: asking his opponent how many Test wickets they took. Don’t think he restricts it to cricketing arguments, either. The commentator Simon Hughes once saw Botham ask a waiter if the restaurant had any ‘doe-lay-chetti’. ‘Actually, it’s “doll-chay-lattay”, Ian,’ said Hughes. Botham persisted with his version, Hughes politely repeated his correction, and so on until the inevitable sentence appeared: ‘How many Test wickets did you take for England?’
The answer in this case was none: Hughes, although an excellent county player, never appeared for his country. But he contends — and for what it’s worth I agree with him — that this makes him a better commentator than Botham. If a player is struggling, Hughes can understand what he is going through, offer reasoned analysis. Beefy’s pronouncement will either be ‘he’s brilliant, what a star’ or ‘not good enough, get someone else on’ — there’s nothing in between.
He applies the same binary vision to every-thing. A golf journalist once wondered whether Ian Woosnam’s good start to a tournament could continue into the final round. It did. Botham, who was on the course to support his mate Woosnam, publicly rubbished the journo, mocking him along the lines of ‘What does he know about golf?’ In Botham’s world you can’t ask questions of people — you’re either for them or against them.
That’s the problem in a nutshell: for Ian Botham at 60, life is still simple, as black-or-white as when he was a child. For most of us, age brings an awareness that the interesting bits of life are those in the middle, the greying shades that merge and change, testing us and refining us along the way. If you reach your seventh decade and still answer everything ‘yes’ or ‘no’, haven’t you missed the point?
So this isn’t a hatchet job, a crude denunciation of Botham as talentless or bad: that would be to commit the error I’m complaining about. No, it’s just a regretful j’accuse, a downhearted acknowledgement that where once I saw a hero, now I see a fool.
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