Botham, Hollywood and James Bond
The summer of 1985 was Ian Botham's last in England at the very top of his game, and from there on in his career went into slow decline until his retirement in 1993. But it was a memorable year, as he played a key role in helping England regain the Ashes, finishing as the leading wicket-taker on either side, and also broke the long-standing record for the most sixes in a domestic season.
He had been in demand for commercial deals for several years and his success against Australia had further increased his appeal. He had also fallen in with an agent-publicist, Tim Hudson, who believed the world was at his client's feet. And that that world extended way beyond the confines of cricket or even sport. Botham, so Hudson believed, could conquer Hollywood.
Hudson, who was born in Cheshire, had made a considerable fortune in the USA as a DJ and voice-over artist - he had played one of the vultures in The Jungle Book - and in 1984 he returned home and bought Birtles Hall, a country house in Cheshire that had its own cricket ground. Never one to shy from self-publicity, he reinvented himself as "Lord" Tim Hudson and devised a plan to set up his own cricketing base where the great and the good of the game would play.
In May 1984 his dream came true when a celebrity winner-takes-all match took place at Birtles Hall with Botham and Geoff Boycott captaining opposing sides. It was the next year that Hudson and Botham became closer.
"I took a call in the States from a friend who told me that Botham had been arrested for possession of cannabis," Hudson told the Observer. "Maybe I had had one too many 'doobies', too, but one night I decided to call Ian. I said how sorry I was about what had happened and that if he needed any help, I knew some very good lawyers."
Soon after, he met Botham in London. "I told him that I heard stories that he was only earning £500 for an appearance and was crashing on peoples' floors instead of being put up in proper accommodation. I said this was ridiculous. He was the greatest British hero since Wellington or Nelson." Botham was convinced and hired Hudson to replace Reg Hayter, the veteran journalist who had been handling his commercial affairs.
That summer a new-look Botham took to the field, with longer hair and blond highlights. The establishment spluttered its disapproval but Hudson admitted he had plans for his new client to go even further. "What I wanted was for him to wear a pirate-style earring and a headband with the St George's flag on it as he walked out to bat."
Botham, along with his close friend Viv Richards, was also at the forefront of Hudson's clothing line, and that summer his gaudy blazers, based on Rastafarian colours, were all the rage.
Hudson even commissioned a painting of Botham, and for a time it hung in the National Portrait Gallery. "If an alien landed on the planet with explicit instructions to find [me] and the only thing he had to go on was that picture, he'd never find me in a million years," Botham later said. "I'm not one who goes in for vandalism but in this case I'd make an exception."
Few inside the game were impressed with Hudson, and the feeling was his obsession with turning Botham into a superstar was impacting his game. Botham's wife, Kathy, was also sceptical. "What I really couldn't take was the excessive adulation which Tim showered on Ian," she later said.
Hudson's big vision centred on movies and in December 1985, Botham and he flew to Los Angeles to meet producer and director Menahem Golan. In an interview on HTV shortly before he left, Botham was asked if he would rather hit a six off the Australians or attend an opening night of his own film in Hollywood. "I've already done the six," he smiled.
Golan was impressed enough not to dismiss the idea of turning Botham into a film star - Botham quoted him as saying that he "had the looks, build and accent to be the next James Bond" - and laid down his terms. Botham needed to move to California for six months and take acting lessons.
The problem was that Botham was already committed to England's tour of the Caribbean, which started in January, and on discovering this the plan fizzled out. In any case, whatever Hudson wanted, Botham was first and foremost a cricketer and wanted it to stay that way.
Hudson, however, had persuaded the Sun to pay for a reporter and photographer to accompany them to the USA. A big story was expected and the pair were under pressure to find out details of when and where the promised screen test would happen.
To try to save the day, Hudson arranged for the four of them to take the Universal Studios tour, where a less-than-enthused Botham was photographed dressed up as a gunslinger - in the way any tourist would be. "I've seen dead hedgehogs look more interested," Botham admitted. "It was a total, utter shambles and I was more than happy to get on a plane home as quickly as I could." The almost farcical trip removed the scales from Botham's eyes and his relationship with Hudson cooled.
Inevitably Hudson had a different take. "He got to hang out with John McEnroe and Rod Stewart. In fact, he said to me it was one of the happiest times of his life, because he could put a pair of shades on, look at any girl in town and nobody knew who he was."
By April 1986, Botham was headline news for all the wrong reasons after lurid stories of alleged late-night frolics appeared in tabloid papers. As England's tour lurched towards a close, at times it seemed there were more reporters in the West Indies looking to dig dirt than write on the cricket. "Every little gremlin from Fleet Street was out there hiding under a rock," Botham recalled. "I don't know how I stopped myself from getting hold of a couple of them and battering their heads together."
To add to Botham's worries, Hudson gave an interview to a tabloid reporter where he was asked about allegations of drug-taking on England's tour of New Zealand in 1983-84. "I'm aware Ian smokes dope… doesn't everyone?" Hudson replied.
For Botham and his wife that was the final straw and after a heated phone call Hudson was sacked. Kathy had never trusted Hudson, and she realised that his plans did not include her or the children, something he later admitted. "'I had nothing against her personally. It's just that if I was trying to promote him as a sex symbol, then it didn't help to have a wife in tow. And believe me, he was a sex symbol. I saw one woman have an orgasm just from looking at him."
"It took me a while but when I had that final moment of revelation with Hudson and saw through him, I realised that for everything he promised, it was all about him at the end of the day," Botham told the Observer in 2007. "He's off his rocker."
Botham subsequently expressed bitter regret for the period he was under Hudson's influence. "What I would say about that chapter in my life is that I wasn't the only one sucked in. So were Lord Cowdrey, Brian Close and a Hollywood mogul like Golan. When you met Hudson in his mansion and heard him talk about the people he knew, it was impossible not to be drawn in."
Hudson begged to differ. "If you look at what I did for Ian, you would have to say it was a job well done. In the year we worked together, he had more written about him than many top players have in their entire careers. When we went to the USA, Sports Illustrated ran a 14-page feature on us. If the Mets hadn't won the World Series the week before, I think we would have been on the cover."
What happened next?
- As a result of a court case, Botham was forced to admit to the Daily Mail in May 1986 that he had used cannabis, and as a result he was banned from cricket for two months
- Hudson returned to the USA, where he reinvented himself as a painter
- The cricket ground at Birtles Hall fell into disrepair in the late 1980s - Hudson and his wife lived in the wooden pavilion briefly - and he sold it in 2007 having sold the house itself in the early 1990s
Head On Ian Botham (Ebury Press, 2007)
Botham - My Autobiography Ian Botham (Harper Collins, 1994)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa