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Arise, Sir Beefy

Mike Selvey raises a glass to another Botham half-century


Mike Selvey raises a glass to another Botham half-century

'There are those who didn't think I'd see 30' © Getty Images
It is November 24. The Faisalabad Test match has just been drawn and his Beefiness, freshly finished from commentating duties, has gone straight to his car and instructed his driver to hot-foot the two-hour journey to Lahore where he intends to celebrate his 50th birthday with dinner at the Royal Palm Golf Club. "And a nice fresh lime soda, Beefy?" A grunt and an expletive. "'94 Merlot". Well, of course.
Then, duly celebrated, it was off next day to Bangalore for the weekend to play golf before returning for the final Test. He may be on the downhill slide in years but there is no let-up in the restless, hyperactive energy that has characterised him since, as a Somerset rookie, he had his front teeth knocked out by Andy Roberts and burst on to the public conscience.
Sitting in the hotel in Faisalabad that same evening and wondering how to approach a tribute to the most charismatic British sportsman of his age, I flicked on the television. And, as if pre-ordained, the first image that appeared was Old Trafford in 1982, Botham newly at the crease. In successive balls the Indian medium pacer Madan Lal was clumped meatily through midwicket and then, when he compensated by pitching the ball up, was driven heartily through the off side, Botham's legs levering him through the stroke with the bat finishing impossibly high. It was a stroke of perfection. "That," purred Richie Benaud, "is one to hang on your wall or pin in your case and carry around forever." That he made a hundred is a given. That he did so for the second part with David Gower as a runner after a full-toss hit him on the toe was merely surprising: he couldn't run so he just belted it.

'Headingley 1981 has forever become known as Botham's Match, despite Bob Willis' eight second-innings wickets that clinched it' © Getty Images
But what brought home just how much he managed to dominate the sport was the programme's name: Indian Heroes. It was supposed to be a tribute to the spinner Dilip Doshi who took six wickets in the innings. It was ever thus - Botham overshadowed everything. Headingley 1981 has forever become known as Botham's Match, despite Bob Willis' eight second-innings wickets that clinched it; similarly Stan Mortensen's Cup final hat-trick in 1953 was largely forgotten in the euphoria of the Matthews Final.
Botham was the fulcrum in every side he played, a talisman, something that the current England team recognises in Andrew Flintoff. Their own happy congratulations to Botham on his birthday are a result of the inspiration the team still draws from his achievements and the sight of him stomping around doing his pre-match pitch report.
Older he may be but nothing much has changed apart from his waistline. On the cricket field he believed he was omnipotent, a comic-book superhero, who could set free any situation with one bound. So he thrashes the ball around the golf courses of the world with similar abandon and self-belief and, as many have found to their cost, is no less abstemious afterwards. He has made himself into one of the world's finest commentators. Just ask him.
And he is preparing to embark on another selfless walk to add to the millions of pounds he has already raised for the leukaemia fund he started all those years ago after a visit to a childrens' ward.
"There are those who didn't think I'd see 30," he joked the other day, "but here I am at 50 and I still feel 20 years younger." He hasn't yet seen the shine off his life. He'll reach 100. No doubt about it. Maybe by then he will have that knighthood so mystifyingly denied him. He is probably laying down the claret even now.