Botham v Chappell: time for a drink

Kevin Mitchell on the Both v Chappelli spat

Kevin Mitchell

Ian Chappell: no compromise © Getty Images
Ian Botham and Ian Chappell share far more than a first name. Their recent and longer history shows that not only can they not say sorry (or even hello) to each other, they will never be persuaded that there is a time in life when the better, if tougher, thing to do is back down and admit human frailty.
Their self-perception determines their actions and thoughts. They live up to their own view of themselves, and what they reckon is the world's view, although they will not see it like this. In their eyes they are no more than unflinchingly honest, wreathed in integrity. It is the other guy who is wrong - and always will be. The rest of us, obviously more fallible, can only watch from outside, compellingly amused.
So what to make of their latest contretemps? No sooner had Botham been dubbed a knight of the realm than he was dubbed a liar-at-large by that gong-less, colonial commoner Chappell over their now "legendary" dust-up in a Melbourne bar in 1977. It hardly matters whose version is less inaccurate or what really took place. For the record, if you have not read it a hundred times before, drink had been taken, Botham was young, emboldened with national pride in a foreign place, and took exception to what he thought was a slur on English cricket by Chappell. (How rare is that? An Aussie rubbishing the Poms?)
In his latest autobiography, Head On, Botham, who was 22 at the time and on a scholarship playing club cricket in Melbourne, says he gave Chappell (34) "three official warnings", which the Australian ignored. So "I just flattened him. He went flying over a table and crash-landed on a group of Aussie Rules footballers, spilling their drinks in the process." Then, apparently, Chappell fled the bar.
Botham, or his ghost or his publishers, must have known his account would draw a response from Chappell. It did. He called it a "fairy-tale". According to Chappell, Botham put an empty beer glass to his throat and said: "I'll cut you from ear to ear." Chappell said such action would confirm Botham was a coward, at which point the by now enraged young Englishman pushed him in the chest and, says Chappell, "I fell backwards". They swapped more yah-boo-sucks insults and went their separate ways. Mike Tyson eat your heart out.
It is not the tiff that has kept them apart - they have not spoken since 1980 even though they have shared social and working space. It is the insistences by each man, neither entirely convincing, that his version, the one that paints him in the best light, is the correct one. It is unadulterated ego, pride, stubbornness - and it seems to have clouded their memories, their judgement or both. Either they are both wrong or one of them is right.
Either way, they cannot see the wider picture. Neither Ian will acknowledge that bickering so publicly for 30 years over an ancient, late-night spat of towering inconsequentiality is the "adult" version of two kids arguing about marbles in the school playground. To each of them this is the Ashes rerun, England v Australia, bursting with personal and national significance to this day. In an ideal end they would shake hands and go for a beer. They do, after all, both like a drink. Yet there is more to it than two grown men behaving like schoolboys, something for which we ought to be grateful.

'If Botham were not so bull-headed, the 1981 Ashes series, and the Test matches at Edgbaston and Headingley, would not have been so indelibly etched in our memories' © Getty Images
What we have witnessed in this row is not just a standoff between two of cricket's macho men but loud statements of their competitive spirit. It is, after all, what made them such wonderful cricketers. So let us not lose too much sleep over it. (Just a few column inches will do).
If Botham were not so bull-headed, the 1981 Ashes series, and the Test matches at Edgbaston and Headingley, would not have been so indelibly etched in our memories. He might not have scored 5,200 Test runs and taken 383 Test wickets.
If Chappell did not hook so bravely, lead with such uncompromising vigour and tap into the larrikin gene embedded in all great Australian sportsmen, the team he inherited from the affable but ineffectual Bill Lawry would not have morphed into one of the toughest Test units. If Botham were not so certain of his values and clout in the game, he would not have told the rebel tour apartheid-breakers who courted him to go to hell. He would not be able, he said, to look Viv Richards in the eye, no matter the money on offer. If Chappell were not so certain about his disgust of racial injustices and clear that his standing in the game would ensure his voice would be heard in a political climate ill-disposed to raking over old embarrassments, he might not have demanded at a posh cricket awards dinner in 2003 that the Aboriginal team who toured England in 1868 be posthumously recognised as full internationals.
The two Ians will know, deep down, they are more alike than they let on. Maybe, just maybe, they will have that drink one day.

Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer of The Observer