April 21, 2012

On the road with Beefy

Ian Botham has been a tireless crusader for cancer research for near on three decades. His 14th charity walk for the cause ends today

Walking may not seem like the most challenging of activities for a champion sportsman. As a player, Ian Botham batted and bowled like a man in a hurry to get the job done quickly (and he often did). Off the field his bon viveur antics were the antithesis of sedate. But it was for his charity fund-raising, as much as his cricketing feats, that he was elevated to Sir Ian in 2007, and these days walking is as much a part of the "Beefy" brand as Headingley '81 and his commentary role with Sky.

Botham, however, is no stroller. It quickly became apparent when I joined him in Norwich for the eighth leg of Beefy's Great British Walk, that the drive and determination that characterised his playing career are still present. Early on, as the party set out through the city centre, someone mentioned that the pace (a brisk 4.5mph, on average) was quite testing. "We're not even warmed up yet," Botham growled, eyes shielded behind sunglasses, back hunched against the elements.

It is 27 years since Botham first marched from John O'Groats to Lands End in aid of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, an undertaking inspired by an encounter as a 22-year-old playing for Somerset with children suffering from terminal blood cancer in a Taunton hospital. In that time he has completed 14 charity walks, covering almost 10,000 miles and raising more than £13 million. Correspondingly, the survival rate for children suffering from the most common form of leukaemia has risen from 20% to almost 93%. But he won't be stopping yet.

"The walks are ultimately about one thing and only one thing, and that's to raise money to go into leukaemia and lymphoma research," he says. "I'm a competitive person, so if I set out to do something there's no point in falling short of that mark. I can't get to 100% survival rate, but I know I can get close to it. We still have major problems with the adult forms of the disease but as we've made that many inroads into this form of blood cancer, we believe that somewhere along the line it's going to open doors to other forms. So there's a massive incentive for us to keep going, and that's what we'll do."

The walks are a family operation, with four generations present on this one. Botham's daughter Sarah is the coordinator, having taken over from wife Kath. A hardcore of friends and neighbours trudged through the April showers for Beefy's cause - such as "Big Gaz", who tagged along to walk with Botham "for ten minutes" when he was a teenager in 1992 and is still a regular participant. A motley selection of celebs, such as Olympic decathlete Daley Thompson, former Norwich footballer Jeremy Goss, and Spandau Ballet drummer John Keeble, also swelled the numbers.

Early on, as the party set out through the city centre, someone mentioned that the pace (a brisk 4.5mph, on average) was quite testing. "We're not even warmed up yet," Botham growled

The lead-out car played regimental band music and there was a certain amount of pomp and circumstance to the procession, so much so that in Cardiff a bystander asked if they were doing a practice run for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Even in suburban and then rural Norfolk, plenty of people came to their front doors or wound down the car window in order to donate, while labourers at a burger van nodded in recognition. As we passed by the waterways of Wroxham, boat builders left their workshops and ladies both young and old stopped to smile and wave - but then Botham always did know how to charm the broads.

A few miles from the end, the team were joined by a collection of local walkers and fundraisers who wanted to meet the man himself, although the effect was more of them being sucked into Botham's wake as he barrelled through, his speed slackening only to exchange a few handshakes and pats on the back.

It is his cricketing celebrity that fuels the pavement-pounding charity drive, and Botham acknowledges the latter could not exist without the former. At the walk's conclusion he sat with his feet up on a stool, an ice pack on his knee, signing autographs and posing for photographs in avuncular fashion. A local brewery had provided the ale - named Give It Some Humpty, after Botham's typically no-nonsense remark to Graham Dilley - and a band playing in the background gave the afternoon an almost festival feel, rain and mud included. You could call it Beefstock.

"Cricket is the springboard," Botham said. "I think a lot of people enjoyed the way I played the game and that's reflected a little bit in the amount of people we're seeing turning out."

He is, of course, still a vocal commentator on the fortunes of the England team - and to say Botham has trenchant opinions is a bit like observing that tractors have big wheels. He was not perturbed by members of the South Africa side, such as Vernon Philander and Alviro Petersen, gaining experience of English conditions while playing county cricket but described the length of the series between what is likely to be the two best Test teams in the world (England host South Africa for three Tests this summer) as "ridiculous".

Botham was also confident the 4-1 reverse over the winter, in Test series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, was merely a blip and that England's current leader is the right man for the job, describing criticism of Andrew Strauss as "a load of baloney".

"I don't have any problems with Strauss, I think he should be England captain," he says. "He hasn't scored a hundred for a while, so he has to answer some questions; it goes with the territory. But Strauss and Andy Flower have got England to No. 1, we're still No. 1. We didn't have a very good winter by our standards, let's put that behind us and move on."

This latest expedition will be behind Botham too, with their final leg due in London on Saturday. Then he will go fishing, the competitive flames doubtless stoked once again. He is already making plans for a fundraiser to coincide with his 60th birthday - which will also mark the 30 years since his first walk - though he will not be drawn on them yet. Call it a shortened run-up if you like, but Botham is still charging in.

For more information on Beefy's Great British Walk 2012 go to www.beatingbloodcancers.org.uk/beefywalk2012 or you can donate at www.justgiving.com/beefywalk2012

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo