Botham, Richards, and Gower, 1994

The giants depart

With the retirement last season, within a few weeks of each other, of Ian Botham and Vivian Richards, first-class cricket lost two of the greatest of all its stars. Botham and Richards were good companions. Brought together by cricket, they became firm enough friends to spend a part of their winters going round the halls, exchanging banter with much the same abandon as they showed on the field. They had no particular talent for the stage, I think; but their prowess as cricketers deserves to be remembered for as long as the game is played.

Before Richards, Antigua had yet to be recognised as a nursery of prodigiously talented cricketers. That it now has a Test match ground and a quarter of a million tourists a year owes much to Richards. If Nelson put Antigua on the map by making it the base from which he sallied forth to do battle with the French in the Caribbean, Richards came to glamorise it by looking and batting as he did. He had the countenance to go with his style.

Richards first came to our notice in February 1974, when, playing for the Leeward Islands, he treated the bowling of Mike Denness's MCC side with dazzling disdain. A contract with Somerset soon followed, then the first of his 121 Test matches. Such was the impact he made and the conceit with which he played that when Clive Lloyd was looking for a way to counter the ascendancy of Lillee and Thomson in Australia in 1975-76 he sent Richards in first in the last two Test matches. Richards responded by making 30, 101, 50 and 98, and cutting a rare dash as he did so. In 1976 alone he scored 1,710 Test runs (just think of it!) at an average of 90, culminating in an innings of 291 against England at The Oval--and he was still only 24.

For most of the next two years Richards was lost to Test cricket while on the road with the Packer Circus. There was an intolerance, a belligerence about the way World Series Cricket was played which either hardened its adherents or flustered them. In the event, it confirmed Richards's supremacy. In a way, it made a man of him.

Ian Botham, meanwhile, was fast becoming the talk of English cricket. He was very strong, patently irrepressible and cheerfully insubordinate. By the time Richards joined Somerset in 1974, Botham, although almost four years his junior, was already on the staff there. They made a flamboyant, ultimately ungovernable pair. After a while Somerset hardly knew what had hit them. Botham played the first of his 102 Test matches against Australia at Trent Bridge in July 1977, when he was 21. By the end of his fourth he had taken five wickets in an innings three times, made the first of his 14 Test hundreds and run out his captain, Geoffrey Boycott, because he thought he was scoring too slowly if the match, against New Zealand at Christchurch, were to be won (which, eventually, it was). Within two years and one month Botham had scored 1,000 runs and taken 100 wickets in Test matches--no one has ever done that in a shorter time--and was well on the way to becoming a sporting legend.

Richards was a wonderful batsman. In saying that there has probably never been a more intimidating one, I have not forgotten W.G., who, like Richards, was known to unnerve umpires as well as bowlers and fielders, quite apart from his own partners. Antigua's first cricketer to make a name for himself was Danny Livingstone, who became the island's chief coach after a playing career with Hampshire. I once asked Livingstone whether there was a potential Richards born in Antigua every week or every year or perhaps every ten years. Maybe every 50 years, came the reply.

It was not unusual for Richards to whip his first ball through mid wicket for four, even when it was pitched precisely where the bowler had intended. He had the confidence which came of knowing that he was a symbol of West Indian cricketing dominance, the footwork with which the great natural batsmen are born, the power of lightning and bewildering reflexes. When he was in prime form the best bowlers were as helpless against him as all the rest.

After seeing Richards land a straight drive off Greg Matthews, Australia's off-beat off-spinner, a good 40 yards out of the Bourda Oval in Georgetown in 1991, I wondered whether he had ever made a bigger hit. Yes, he thought there was one against Sussex that beat it--another straight drive, this time off John Snow, which all but cleared the block of flats at the sea end of the county ground at Hove. His blazing, unbeaten 110 in 58 balls against England in Antigua in 1986 contained seven sixes, none slogged yet all bludgeoned. In terms of balls received it was comfortably the fastest Test hundred ever made.

Botham's broadsides were less calculated but every bit as spectacular. His deeds against Australia in three successive Test matches in 1981--at Headingley, Edgbaston and Old Trafford--were miraculous. Three times, with the Ashes in the balance, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. If his 118 in the Fifth Test at Old Trafford was even more stupendous than his 149 in the Third at Headingley that is only because it was more measured--and he still went from 28, when Australia took a new ball, to 100 in not much over half an hour with Dennis Lillee doing his best to stop him. Of its kind it was arguably the finest innings ever played.

Not since Gilbert Jessop's 104 against Australia at The Oval in 1902 had such hitting been seen in a Test match. Jessop hit 17 fours off 76 balls; at Old Trafford Botham hit six sixes and 13 fours off 102 balls; at Headingley a six and 27 fours off 148 balls. To the man in the street Botham became an idol. He was as much of a sporting drawcard as Don Bradman had been, or Muhammad Ali. The bigger the occasion the better it suited him, except, to his chagrin, when it came to denying West Indies. In 38 innings Botham's highest score against them was 81, his average only 21. He took 61 West Indian wickets, however, including Richards's seven times.

Botham's 12 Tests as England's captain, from June 1980 to July 1981, were not among his happiest; but nine of them were against West Indies, and as Mike Brearley's counsellor-in-chief he had shown himself to be a good reader of the game. I suppose we should have known that it was asking too much of him to captain the side as well as doing so much else.

Only Allan Border, Greg Chappell and Richards have held more than Botham's 120 catches in Test cricket. The great majority of Botham's were taken at slip, where, contrary to accepted practice, he insisted upon standing only slightly crouched and with his hands on his thighs even when the ball was being delivered. Then there was the little matter of his 383 Test wickets. Not even Garfield Sobers had an all-round record much superior to Botham's.

Ian's bowling varied according to the state of his fitness. As a colt he was uninhibitedly aggressive and a brisk fast-medium. He came charging in off a longish run, taking wickets with a splendid out-swinger when he pitched the ball up and knocking back the bat when he dug it in. As time went by, wear and tear took their toll, though never of his enthusiasm. For his last five or six years he had to rely more on ingenuity then strength, and not least on make-believe; but even then something very often turned up, if only a catch to long leg off a long-hop. It is fashionable now, I am afraid, with short-pitched bowling so prevalent, for a bowler to station two long legs, and it was Botham who set the trend.

Even when he was merely ambling up to the wicket and bowling at the gentlest of paces, he did more than anyone to help England beat Australia at Sydney in the 1992 World Cup, taking four for 31 in his ten overs and then making 53 going in first. But his batteries were pretty nearly run down by then, and once the England selectors were no longer interested in him they went flat. Despite containing the last of his 38 first-class hundreds, for Durham against Worcestershire at Stockton, his final days were more melancholy than misty-eyed.

Armed with today's heavy bats, Botham and Richards hit the ball as hard and far as it can ever have been hit. At times when they were batting together, two or three balls might be seen floating like flotsam in the River Tone, which made it all the sadder when their years with Somerset ended not in the laughter which they liked to evoke but in mounting acrimony. The rights and wrongs of that dispute were too well-rehearsed at the time to need repetition here. Let it suffice to say that a parting of the ways was in Somerset's best interests.

Botham's brushes with authority, whether they concerned cricket or the law, in England or elsewhere, may have been evidence of a free spirit, but they were really no more excusable for that. Richards, for his part, had a temper to contend with, which was behind a swingeing two-year suspension, imposed in his late teens, from playing cricket in Antigua, and was another reason for his being held in fairly universal awe. It seemed to me that over the years the press generally exercised discretion in favour of both players, though I doubt very much whether they would subscribe to that view themselves.

To Botham the colour of a man's skin was of small account. To Richards it mattered much more; more, sometimes, than was helpful. Botham was quite without artifice. You got what you saw. Richards was proudly and defiantly black. The swagger with which he walked to the wicket, flashing that Rastafarian wristlet; the air with which he looked round the field, the conviction with which he twiddled his bat, the condescension with which from time to time he failed, were all a part of one of the supreme acts in the history of the game. He was stamped with the image of a king. As he ruled, so too he raged, and so, in his tranquil moments, he responded to affection.

Viv was a hard cricketer, but a chivalrous, warm-hearted and unselfish one. In the years of his maturity his love of the game and still-unwavering determination inspired Glamorgan to a season to remember. Botham was just as fiercely competitive, just as chivalrous and chauvinistic, and just as

accompanied by any financial reward. It is a plaque inscribed with the words: For Fun, Style and Excellence, which was a perfect way of summing up both his philosophy and his career. Cricket, even in the high-voltage atmosphere of modern Test matches, was never without fun while Gower was at the crease. Even those who claim he never made the fullest use of his talents would admit to an inimitable style, and you do not score 8,231 Test runs at an average of 44.25 without excelling at the game.

His first mentor at Leicester was Raymond Illingworth, a blunt Yorkshireman not much given to frivolity. Yet Illingworth recognised very early one of cricket's essential truisms. Change the man, and you change the cricketer. He had the occasional half-hearted stab, such as delivering a stern lecture over what he regarded as dress just the wrong side of acceptably casual during one away trip, whereupon Gower came down for breakfast next morning attired in full evening dress. Slightly suspicious, given the young Gower's already blossoming reputation as a bon viveur, Illingworth spluttered: Bloody hell, Gower. Have you just come in?

In a different context, the words Gower's just come in emptied bars in cricket grounds all around the world. Often they would be filled again soon enough, perhaps after one of those cameos in which Gower's entire career could be captured in a single over. A couple of sumptuous cover drives for four, a languid pull to the mid-wicket boundary, two leaden-footed air shots, and finally the seemingly careless snick to gully. However, he also played innings of prolonged genius and, occasionally, just to remind his detractors, he would get his head down and graft with every bit as single-minded a purpose as the England captain who finally gave up on him, Graham Gooch. He was rarely predictable. James Whitaker recalled batting with him in a county game at Old Trafford when the West Indian, Patrick Patterson, was bowling particularly quickly and Gower three times in an over almost gave his wicket away with rash shots. Junior man or not, Whitaker felt obliged to snort that it was not a benefit match, and such was the lack of reaction he wondered whether Gower had heard him. He had. In Patterson's next over Gower struck four magical boundaries, sauntered up the wicket, and with a deadpan delivery said: Was that a bit better, then?

Following Gower's dismissal after his second term as England captain in 1989, the new man, Gooch, was happier without him on that winter's tour to the West Indies. But it was in Australia the following winter that Gooch, who admired Gower as a player as much as anyone, formed the terminal view of his commitment. In the 1990-91 Adelaide Test he watched from the non-striker's end as Gower, wafting carelessly at the last ball before lunch, fell into an Australian trap so obvious that the ball was almost delivered by registered post. This followed an aerial prank during the match against Queensland at Carrara, when Gower and John Morris nipped out during play, hired a couple of Tiger Moths from the airfield across the road, and buzzed the ground. When the management found out, Gower and Morris were fined £l,000 each, a punishment some way out of proportion to the crime, and probably owing much to pique about Gower stealing the headlines from one of the few England victories on a miserable tour. From that point, Gooch never wavered from his view that Gower was a luxury item on tour, non-conducive to team discipline, which is why he helped make sure Gower was not picked for the 1992-93 tour to India despite his class performances (one of them an innings of stoical self-denial to save the game at Headingley) in two of the final three Tests of the previous summer against Pakistan.

Gower was not selected against Australia the following summer, even when England were losing 4-0. And when, under the new captain Mike Atherton, he was left out of the tour to the West Indies, he decided that playing on for Hampshire was not sufficient motivation to resist offers of full-time media employment. He was comfortably the most treasured English cricketer of his generation, and possibly the most treasured ever. This puzzled even him ( Gower at least recognised one or two of his more frustrating traits) but it may not have been unconnected to the Englishman's innate suspicion of perfection, plus his almost complete lack of ego.

His inherently lazy nature made him an indifferent captain, particularly at county level, where the fact that he was largely an instinctive player made it difficult for him to sympathise with and offer advice to individuals; and by his own admission he lost touch too often when away on Test duty. As a Test captain, he shone most brightly on the 1984-85 tour to India, where his bright, positive outlook rubbed off on the team in uncomfortable surroundings. Gower was tactically uninspiring, although he never wavered in his belief that Test players were good enough not to require the sergeant-majorish treatment that he latterly perceived from Gooch and the team manager, Micky Stewart.

When he started his career, he was a shy lad who liked the occasional glass of house wine. When he finished, he was an extrovert imbiber of vintage champagne. However, the reason he was loved, as well as admired, is that he finished with as few airs and graces as he had when he began except--in his batting, which was graceful to the last.

Martin Johnson has been cricket correspondent of The Independent since the paper began in 1986. For 13 years before that he was cricket correspondent of the Leicester Mercury. He was co-author of Gower: The Autobiography.

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