Richard Sydenham spoke to Ian Botham - and a few of his fellow commentators - in Faisalabad on the eve of his 50th birthday
Ian Botham, arguably England's greatest allround cricketer, turns 50 today, and if anyone thinks he's about to take things easy and take up gardening, they should think again.
"I don't feel any different to how I did 20 years ago to be honest," Botham told Cricinfo. "I was horrified when I turned 30 and again when I went to 40, but I'm looking forward to being 50. I feel just as strong and active as I ever have done."
Botham, currently commentating on England at Faisalabad - in Pakistan, a country he once infamously said he wouldn't even send his mother-in-law to - will play with former Ashes-winning England team-mates Chris Broad and Gladstone Small, along with Martin Bicknell, in a golf world cup team event for ex-international cricketers at the weekend, organised by the India cricket legend Kapil Dev. Every Test nation is represented apart from Sri Lanka.
"I'm spending the evening of my 50th in Karachi before I fly to Bangalore to play," Botham said. "Of course, I want to win; I'm not going there for second prize." How ironic if his first World Cup win is on the golf course. That competitive streak was an intrinsic part of Botham's game, what made him believe things were possible on a cricket field when his team-mates had given up.
"He was a very competitive opponent and quite unlike a Pommie," said Rameez Raja, the former Pakistan batsman who is now Botham's co-commentator. "He was energetic, commanding and had the talents to back up his traits. He was a wonderful cricketer and remains a bigger than life character."
Golf has always been a central part of Beefy's life, and if he's not commentating, trying to deceive a hungry salmon, or playing with his three grandchildren, he is likely to be on the golf course.
Paul Allott and David Lloyd, former England cricketers and current Sky TV colleagues, mischievously said that Botham doesn't think he's better than World No.1 golfer Tiger Woods, he is better. "That's not true but I'm certainly better than those two," Botham grinned. "As sportsmen we have a competitive edge, it's in our nature. Whether we're in the commentary box or on the golf course, we're all competitive creatures. The golf course is a natural progression to keep the humour, the banter and the competitive spark."
Botham remains England's most successful Test bowler, with 383 wickets, and is the tenth-highest wicket-taker of all time having held the record for a while from 1986. His 5,200 runs and 102 catches in 102 Tests ensure his place in cricket's hall of fame. His latest half-century will be his slowest: he was renowned for his ability to entertain and exhilarate; either with his power-hitting or his wily talent to think batsmen out as a fast-medium pace bowler. Age doesn't appear to be affecting him.
"Beefy is very demanding to be around and is full on from the moment he wakes up," Lloyd said. Allott shared a dressing room with him in the 1980's and joins him in the commentary box nowadays. "He's still incredibly boisterous," he admitted. "You can't sustain a relationship with Botham for more than two days; you have to give yourself a rest so we go in rotation. He just loves life 100%, 24 hours a day."
Able to play his golf - his handicap is seven - and socialise with old friends, while also staying abreast of England's recent success on the cricket field and exchanging dressing room-like banter with colleagues, Sky seems to suit Botham perfectly. "I might own an office but I'm never in it," he explained. "I wouldn't say it's my ideal job; it's all I've ever known since my late teens - living out of a suitcase, travelling around the world. My wife would be horrified if I was at home all the time. It would totally disrupt her social life and disrupt mine. It's just a way of life. I don't know anything else."
Botham is most famous for his heroics in Ashes Tests against old enemy Australia, particularly at home in 1981 and over there in 1986-87, when he scored 138 in the first Test at Brisbane. The 1981 series was one of the best ever and was famously remembered as `Botham's Ashes'. He took 5 for 1 in 28 balls at Birmingham, hit 149 at Leeds, an innings that not only prevented defeat but brought about a most unlikely victory, and bludgeoned 118 at Manchester.
"The thing I associate most with him generally is his never-say-die attitude, even on the golf course now," Allott said. "No cause is ever lost. He's got this monstrous self-belief that he can win any game, any contest. In terms of memories on a cricket field, I had my first Test at Old Trafford in 1981 and he scored a hundred that everyone said was the best Test innings there had ever been.
"It was the culmination of playing the Australians, he'd already done it them [in the previous match] and they were almost resigned to the fact he would score runs. He just wanted to hit every ball into the middle of next week."
One slight on his record, albeit a hypercritical one, is that he failed to excel against his best mate Viv Richards and the mighty West Indies. He took 61 wickets against them at an average of 35.18 and scored 792 runs at 21.40.
"I did all right with the ball and I got some vital 60s, 70s and 80s, I just couldn't get a hundred against them in the Test arena, which was frustrating but believe me I'm not on my own," Botham reflected. "That's the best side I ever played against and I feel that West Indies team of the mid-eighties is the best team that's ever played Test cricket. People say they didn't have a spinner but they didn't need one with those four guys. They were a magnificent team and it was a privilege to play against them."
Botham doesn't sit about long enough to reflect deeply on his achievements; he merely saw being England's allrounder as his job and like anything he has done he always tried to be No. 1 - "The competitive edge makes us all tick."
But does he regard his Ashes-inspired performances as the most cherished memories of his life, so far?
"It's always good beating the Australians and even better to beat them out there," he said. "Of course, that's a major moment of my life, but there are other things as well. Ask me when I'm lying on my deathbed and then I'll tell you the best moment. Now there are still plenty more to come."