Sir Ian Botham is a hero – and a fool

It was saddening to realise that the god of my childhood still thinks like a child

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

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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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    What’s the point of this article? Nothing recent or newsworthy has happened to spark it, has it?

    • HungryHorace

      I was wondering that myself? Is this just someone venting?

    • Glen Binnie

      Ian Botham turned 60 on Tuesday

    • seangrainger

      That Test was far more important than the birth of Mohamed or whatever his name is …

  • siphil

    There is a saying that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Morrissey for example.

    Botham is the biggest hero as a cricketer but having read is autobiography he comes across as a bit of a k**b. The author is right that his talent was so immense and so instinctive that he could not understand why others could not do similar and that was why he a poor captain.

    I prefer to remember the great player he was.

  • Solar

    Botham may have played cricket well but as a commentator, he’s excruciatingly boring. His blunt I’m a tough guy tone, along with stating the obvious, such as “that’s a four” when the ball goes over the rope.

  • seangrainger

    Both am was right in th e dressing room and you are wrong. Go wer should not have been captain and furthermore he scored his centuries at the wrong time.

    • Sanctimony

      Perhaps you might enlighten us as to what is the right time to score a test century….

      • seangrainger

        Google has failed me. I sat in the Edrich stand one Thursday ?? 20 years ago and watched the two Aussie openers score just over 300 carrying their bats. That is when the response century is required mush. Alles

        • red2black

          Well said. The man’s not even dressed for the occasion.

      • njt55

        When it really matters, when the pressure is on to respond to a high first innings total, when you need to win a tight match. As opposed to when you are heading for a tame draw or you are winning at a canter.

        • Sanctimony

          Fair enough… but I wouldn’t scorn any test century, whatever the circumstances…

        • blandings

          As a West Ham supporter I heartily endorse this comment.

  • Tamerlane

    If it looks like KP and it smells like KP and talks like KP then it’s Ian Botham.

  • njt55

    Great players of any sport are often the worst analysts and coaches because they can’t understand why other people can’t do what they did. This might be apocryphal, but I believe that Ayrton Senna could not understand why people could not drive like him. Apparently he thought everyone could do it but chose not to.

    But how many truly great world class home-grown cricketers have we produced since Botham? Test batting and bowling records for the past 20 years or so show a distinct absence of English players. This is beginning to change with Cook and Anderson and hopefully Root. Where’s our Sachin, Ponting, Warne, Waugh, etc?

    We tend to knock our greats. At various times Faldo was described as miserable, Hamilton a chav, Botham a drunk, Cook, apparently, has limited talent, Anderson can only take wickets when the ball swings, Jonny Wilkinson was neurotic, Seb Coe over-sensitive (I see the knives are out for him again) and so on. Perhaps if we weren’t so quick to pull them down we might produce greater sports people more consistently. Nothing makes an English person so annoyed as another English person’s success. It’s the PHD syndrome.

    For all his faults Botham was, and remains, among the greatest players of his sport. Not many English sportsmen of any sporting discipline can say that.

    • mikewaller

      All that said, could not Botham’s behaviour to others – if it is as reported – be part of the problem? It certainly seems to be shot through with putting others down. Perhaps he should have been recruited by Grant Shapps before the general election! Having seen much the same thing elsewhere, it is often associated with keeping as self-selected coterie in place to the exclusion of others.

      • njt55

        You could well be right, if it as reported. And he’s a Tory, so maybe they did enlist him. I had a brief conversation with him once, which he won’t remember, and he was a perfect gentleman. But it was brief and we didn’t discuss anything that might prompt him to ask me how many test wickets I’ve taken (none!). In fact, if truth be told I was too busy being sycophantic to be controversial! I’m sure that IB can be boorish and his cricket commentary is not very analytical, but I just try and remember him in his pomp as a cricketer.

  • Great players of sport they may be but the IQs of idiots!

  • Randal

    Hero worship is for children anyway, surely? And obviously for immature adults, as well.

  • blandings

    I’m wary of this kind of reporting. It smacks of “Yet another gaffe by Phil The Greek”.
    The context, and the tone in which a comment is made are all important and who knows, you might have interpreted them differently if you had heard them first hand.

    “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?’”
    It could have been a sense of humour thing. Judging by what i’ve read by Hughes, he seems a po-faced guy with an exaggerated sense of his own solemnity. Maybe he bores Botham as much as he bores me.

    “only for a visibly bored Botham to pipe up: ‘Can’t we just go out and beat them?’”
    Might this have been an acute observation: “If you think that we’re going lose then we will”?

    “What they did mind was you taking half your team-mates to the bar with you.”
    “A man’s gotta know his limitations” – Clint Eastwood (and presumably Ian Botham)

    “So this isn’t a hatchet job.”
    If you say so.

  • RavenRandom

    Why the attack article? Super talented sportsman is not brain of Britain or philosopher of the year, what a shock. Has he done something to offend you?

  • RWP

    How many Test wickets did you take, Mark?

    • Bachus

      I would argue that being a good journalist is far more important than being being good at a rather strange sport.

      • Todd Unctious

        A sport played by a third of the World’s population is not strange. American football is strange.

        • Timothy Grant

          So two billion people play cricket? I doubt it.

          • Todd Unctious

            India,Pakistan and Bangladesh alone have 22% of World population.

    • Todd Unctious

      Botham isa hero.End of. If you had spent your Sundays watching him,Richards and Garner in the old JPL in the late 70s, early 80s you would understand too. One of the greatest English sportsman of the last 50 years. Only Graham Hill and Steve Redgrave come close.

  • bigmax

    Test comment

  • Sean L

    What’s happening the point of this? It’s just a nothing of an article.

    • bigmax

      Why writing you that funny English style?

      • Sean L

        It question good is.

  • God and Mr Browning

    The well-known fruit loaf, Soreen Botham is just a bully and a bore. Why does he insist that on the chummy, all-friends-together, Sky commentary, he has to be ‘Sir Ian’ every time he’s addressed? Most of the others get around it by calling him ‘Beefy’, but it’s just a bore.
    On the other hand, there’s a bright side. He’s nowhere near as bad as Boycott.

  • mixodorians

    I let you guess which political party he supports.

  • ianess

    Dreadful, pointless article, filled with petty sniping. Botham was a true sporting hero. He’s well known for despising hack journalists. Having read this drivel, I can sympathise.

  • grammarschoolman

    He’s very good at one thing, and not so good at others. End of article.

    • Bachus

      I meet people like that all the time in my profession. Very good at a small, not very important thing which they believe makes them an expert on every other thing under the sun. They become legends in their own minds.

  • Caractacus

    I hear WG Grace was a bit of a winker too.

  • pobjoy

    The world is a simple place when you’re ten.

    Indeed. One has yet to distinguish a slogger from a proper batsman.

  • ItsAlreadyTooLate

    From the top 7 Cricket Sledges of All Time

    Rod Marsh : “So how’s your wife & my kids?”

    Ian Botham : “The wife is fine but the kids are retarded”

  • Peter Stroud

    I was patiently reading this article hoping for the magic lines that showed Beefy to be a fool. I failed to find them.

    • tjamesjones

      Mark Mason is right. I was also 10 in 1981 and Botham was the perfect hero. Now, listening to him on Sky sports he’s the worst commentator of the former England players by some margin. He’s clearly not happy, he is unable to usefully add to what is happening because it’s not about beefy. Any anecdote that shows him as a simple minded bully is all too easy to believe.