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Forty years since he announced his arrival on the cricket stage, Ian Botham remains a symbol of home-grown guts for glory that the current England team lacks
June 11, 2014
The Man Who Taught English Cricket How To Rock 'n' Roll is seldom far from mind, especially when we Poms are having one of our frequent spasms of joyless navel-examining. The past few weeks have been no exception whatsoever.
First, accompanying those indefatigably jolly Sky broadcasts, wherein Ian Botham continues to play a robust, Truemanesque role, came a promo for Royal London, the insurance company that sponsors England's erratic one-day combo, featuring a dubbed, mildly chucklesome interchange between players of the near-past; tagline "We're so yesterday." Yup, that's us Poms: forever in search of lost glory and mislaid majesty, endlessly seeking a new Jerusalem, or, failing that, a new Botham.
Then there was that alleged assault by David Moyes, the newest ex-Manchester United manager, on a 23-year-old verbal assailant, whose idea of fun, reportedly, is to get drunk and goad the easiest target in English sport. Having fallen foul of any number of macho provocateurs, how Botham must empathise.
Then there was Paul Downton's assertion that not one member of England's Ashes party he spoke to could muster a reason to keep putting up with Kevin Pietersen, blighted as this was by the ECB MD's misuse of "disinterested" to describe his attitude. (Pedant's corner: if he wasn't showing the slightest interest, as opposed to being unbiased and judge-like, the correct word is "uninterested".) As a resilient object of envy himself, not to say an even more ardent proponent of the "my way/no way" approach to managerial interference, how Botham must sympathise. It was certainly no surprise, in his Daily Mirror column lambasting Pietersen's axing, to find mention of "buffoons", the self-same sub-species that inspired his annus mirabilis of 1981.
Then came that heart-rending contribution to National Dementia Week, wherein he admitted having been unable to visit his father, Les, during the "horrendous" last six months of a life truncated by Alzheimer's: "I didn't want my memory of him to be distorted by the illness that robbed him of himself." Hence, presumably, his decision never to venture down the same primrose path as Andrew Flintoff, and his respectful suggestion that the latter is making "a massive mistake".
It's hard to disagree. Does Flintoff really want our memories of "Freddie" distorted in the way Walter Hammond so sadly undermined his by making a fleeting and ill-advised return to action in 1951, four years after his retirement? "There was no longer any majesty to his walk to the crease," his biographer David Foot would reflect, the regret still aching half a century later. "The limbs were weary, and it couldn't be hidden. Physically he appeared something of a shrunken figure; he was no longer dapper. He took guard and made seven runs in the most undistinguished fashion."
But what brought Botham most vividly to mind was England's new sky-blue ODI shirt - or, more specifically, that Waitrose logo: an implicit no-entry sign to any aspiring teenager whose parents are obliged to shop downmarket at Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrison's, or that canny German double-act, Aldi and Lidl. His Beefiness may well get his Shredded Wheat at Waitrose these days, but when he first rose to prominence he'd rather have worn a koala sponsored by Ian Chappell than don a uniform reeking so shamelessly of middle-class hoity-toitiness. And I say this as an intermittently loyal Waitrose kinda guy.
And now comes an anniversary. Tomorrow marks the 40th birthday of my first close(ish) encounter with the future Sir Beefy. Myself and three mates were playing two-a-side in Stanmore Park, relishing our flagrant abuse of the football pitch, radio perched precariously on the parched, rutted terrain - a dodgy substitute for the missing wicketkeeper. In crackled the BBC bulletin from Taunton: phoenix-ing from 113 for 8 chasing Hampshire's 182 in a Benson & Hedges Cup quarter-final, Somerset had won by one wicket, the hero a fellow whose name suggested he'd just stepped out of The Lion and Albert, one of Stanley Holloway's riotously funny Yorkshire-inflected monologues.
Not content with bowling Barry Richards for 13, the 18-year-old No. 9 had taken a fearful blow from Andy Roberts - one tooth yorked, another trimmed - yet refused to retire, bang-crash-walloping the cider-guzzlers home with an unbeaten 45. Cue gold award and instant fame. "Today, you are everybody's hero," he would recall being told by Bill Alley and Ken Palmer, Somerset's saltiest old dogs. "Tomorrow, they'll have forgotten you." The upstart had to bite his lip. "Needless to say I thanked them for the advice, but what I really felt was more along the lines of, 'Give it a rest, you old buggers'."
|Botham was a rebel with several causes, above all anti-timidity, anti-snobbery, pro-risk and pro-fun. Or, in his own Thatcherite words, "a simple country lad from Yeovil who had the guts to identify what he wanted and grab it with both hands"|
Whether genuine or heightened by hindsight, such brazen self-worth was all an impressionable English cricket lover craved. Not for two more summers would Botham make his international bow, but hearing of his exploits that long-gone afternoon certainly seduced me into believing that this blacksmith of a hero really could deliver us from the clutches of ageing lags and pragmatists. Tony Greig may have kickstarted the process but, to the average pubescent Pom, he fell down on one crucial count: he wasn't English.
I was relieved, upon returning there last week, to find that park still intact: still ten minutes by tube to Wembley Stadium and a couple of sixes downhill from Stanmore Cricket Club, whose best-known graduate, Angus Fraser, remains a staunch member. (Preceding him by a decade, my colts debut was against Mike Gatting's Brondesbury and one of us hit the winning runs, albeit not the one you might suppose.)
Sharing Stanmore Hill's rarefied air back then were two famous actors in neighbouring mansions: Roger Moore and Patrick "The Prisoner" McGoohan. To go back was to discover that the plushness and poshness has faded not a jot. What was once a whites-only enclave has nonetheless changed complexion. Perhaps the oddest fact about Stanmore, which is also home to the struggling and the barely middling, is that it was only in the last decade that it graduated to a Sainsbury's town.
On the same green expanse my mates and I would dash to after school to impersonate Derek Underwood and Geoff Boycott, the only sign of sport at 3.30pm was a chap of Caribbean extraction overseeing his son's attempts to control a f***ball. Up at Stanmore CC, meanwhile, around 30 young schoolboys of exclusively Asian origin were honing their Tendulkar and Dhoni impressions. Given the travails of Owais Shah and Monty Panesar, Moeen Ali has plenty on his shoulders.
"The first slum dweller to play cricket for England," titters the entry for "Sir Ian Terrance 'Dipstick' Botham" in Uncyclopedia, the "Content-Free Encyclopedia". Satire, as ever, is merely purposeful exaggeration. Les Botham worked for the Fleet Air Arm for 20 years either side of the Second World War. Not for him the officers' mess; he was a technician, assigned to ensure aircraft were match-fit. Desirous of more family time, he became a test engineer for Westland Helicopters in Yeovil. Chez Botham may not have been in a slum, but few England captains had ever risen from a background of modest home and state school. One team-mate described Ian as "a bricklayer who happened to be good at something else".
That's why even those of us who deplored his open support for Dragoness Thatcher stayed in love with him. In the late 1970s, a time of more or less unprecedented humility for Englishmen, no public figure, not even the Iron Lady, fought harder to rewind the clock, from submissive to John Bullish. Botham was a rebel with several causes, above all anti-timidity, anti-snobbery, pro-risk and pro-fun. Or, in his own Thatcherite words, "a simple country lad from Yeovil who had the guts to identify what he wanted and grab it with both hands". Larger than life, lord of the lads, here was a swaggering symbol of youthful daring who felt no compunction to resort to either safety pin or eyeliner. And glory be, he'd chosen cricket over f***ball. Just as we may yet be grateful that Ben Stokes rejected his father's game, rugby.
Inevitably perhaps, Botham also mastered the art - not too tall an order in a country where snobbery, class and image count for way too much - of putting noses out of joint. Yes, post-imperial England could perhaps have done with a better-behaved poster boy (initially at least, those knighthood-earning charity walks were portrayed as an act of penance). Yes, as that once-supple body decayed, bullish sometimes gave way to boorish; that rampant self-esteem could scale objectionable heights.
Worse, from a strictly cricketing perspective, the obstinate conviction that he would only be truly effective as a full-time allrounder (as with all forces of nature, boredom was a perpetual threat) seemed to blind him to the possibility of change: as a specialist No. 5 or even 4, he might have contributed more weightily once his back began playing up.
At (iron) bottom, though, none of this matters a bean. Botham captured hearts with spirit. Not the so-called spirit of cricket (such a nebulous, contradictory and self-satisfied concept) but of adventure, a quality apparently lacking in England's first post-Pietersen Test XI outside the multi-talented Chris Jordan, a converted Bajan. History, moreover, tells us that most of this nation's few home-grown cricketing adventurers of the world-beating kind have been scamps, rebels and sons of unassuming fathers (think SF and Denis, Fred, Freddie and Swanny).
As a symbol of the mixed messages Lord's is currently transmitting - new broom, old values - that Waitrose logo could only be bettered by one for a bank. Oh right, that's Investec, the Test sponsor.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014Feeds: Rob Steen
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