Ian Botham June 16, 2007

A crusader on and off the field

The news of Botham's knighthood is wonderfully appropriate and shamefully overdue

Ian Botham received his knighthood from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday. Here's how Cricinfo reacted to the news, back in June, when the award was announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Ian Botham: as worthy a recipient as can ever have existed © Getty Images

If Sir Lancelot had been a cricketer, you can imagine exactly how he would have played. He'd have been a little bit gung-ho; he'd have had a swish and a swagger and a delight in seizing centre-stage. He'd have deployed talent and chutzpah in equal measures, and he'd have galloped in with an appetite for victory that set him apart from the serfs. In short, he'd have played like Ian Botham, for whom today's announcement is both wonderfully appropriate and shamefully overdue.

Let's face it, Botham should have been knighted years ago. For the past decade in Tony Blair's Britain, the Honours System has been a sports and entertainment love-in. Arise Sir Clive Woodward, Arise Sir Elton John. Arise anyone who ever had anything to do with England's 1966 World Cup victory. But arise Sir Ian Botham, legendary allrounder, charity fundraiser and general bon viveur? Not on your nelly.

Perhaps that says more about Blair's disdain for cricket than anything else. In the 2006 New Year's Honours, in a shameful example of populist bandwagon-jumping, every single member of England's 2005 Ashes-winning squad was made an MBE or better - including poor Paul Collingwood, who made just 7 and 10 in his solitary match at The Oval, and was forced to live up to that ill-thought-out award in every innings of last winter's Ashes rematch. That he performed so admirably was a credit to the man himself, not to the system.

Until today, on the other hand, Botham's solitary honour was the OBE he was given in 1992, at the fag-end of a 15-year Test career that encompassed five Ashes victories, two World Cup finals, and 383 wickets - more than any England bowler, before or since, has mustered. That he threw 5200 runs and 120 catches into the bargain was by-the-by. Botham has a rightful claim to be England's greatest living sportsman, end of story. When you take into account the magnificent charity work that has sustained his appetite for conquest long since retirement, it is little short of a scandal that he has been overlooked until now.

There are still some people who'd argue that sport is essentially a trivial business and awards of this type demean an ancient institution. Fair enough. But Botham's crusade against leukaemia leaves no room for equivocation. It was a broken toe and a visit to a Somerset hospital that launched this second career, way back in 1977. He came across a ward of terminally ill children - reading and playing boardgames, and looking healthy in every regard other than the obvious. It left Botham, a young, rumbustuously healthy sportsman, dumbfounded and helpless. There had to be something he could do.

And so there was. In 1985, at the pinnacle of his career, he walked 900 miles from John O'Groats to Land's End to raise awareness of a dreadful blood disease that at the time claimed 80% of the lives of the children for whom it was diagnosed. In 1988, upping the ante as only he could, he crossed the Alps with a herd of elephants in a re-run of Hannibal's assault on Rome. He made it, the elephants didn't.

And on October 17, 2006, at the age of 50 and with £10 million raised directly through the soles of his feet (and an estimated £100 million through the ripple effect of his patronage) Botham completed his 11th such trek, striding down Oxford Street like the Open Champion on the final hole, with a cort├Ęge of exhausted friends, celebrities and mediamen trailing in his wake. By then, leukaemia's mortality rate had plummeted to 20%. There is no danger of him stinting in his efforts until that figure has reached zero.

Botham becomes the 20th cricketer to be made a knight, and the first since his great friend and Somerset team-mate of the 1970s, Viv Richards, back in 1999. Who knows why it has taken so long for this recognition. It's always been suggested that Botham's colourful past counted against him - the bed-breaking antics that made him Fleet Street's favourite villain in the 1980s; the infamous admission to smoking marijuana that led to a three-month ban in 1986; the buccaneering and bar-brawls that seemed, well, just not cricket.

None of the above, however, seemed to count against that other ageing hellraiser, Sir Mick Jagger, when he was knighted in 2003. Ironically, Jagger's favourite mode of relaxation is a day at the cricket, a hobby that somehow underpins his acceptance into the British establishment, rather than undermines it. Perhaps if Botham had been a charity fundraiser first, and a celebrity cricketer second, he'd have ascended to these heights years ago.

Botham is a contradictory character, as only those who are larger than life can be. He has always been portrayed as a rebel, but in truth he has been a defender of the establishment for as long as he has been defending England's honour on the cricket field - never more vehemently than at a dinner in Melbourne on the eve of the World Cup final in 1992. A drag artist had been hired as an after-dinner speaker, and began making unfunny jokes about the Queen. Botham didn't hesitate for a moment. He got up and walked out, closely followed by his captain, Graham Gooch.

And even if none of the above sways your assessment of this richly deserved honour, then just be thankful that David Beckham (and, God forbid, Lady Victoria) won't be kneeling before the Queen this month, as had been widely speculated. As another grand old sporting knight, Sir Bobby Robson, said, the honour should be in "recognition for a life's work, not half a lifetime." Botham has lived and achieved more in his 51 years than most people could fit into ten lifetimes. He is as worthy a recipient as can ever have existed.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo