A review of the newspaper coverage that followed Ian Botham's announcement of his retirement
Announcement of Ian Botham's immediate retirement was all the more news-worthy as it came within hours of hints that he might move once more to see out his time with his old county, Worcestershire. Botham was never exactly 'Telegraph Man', but the Daily Telegraph felt his loss justified a front page dominated by a colour picture of a restrained Botham appeal, with a story by Ben Fenton recalling the comment by Bill Alley (an unfulfilled Aussie Botham of a past generation): 'If you made him Prime Minister tomorrow, he'd pick this country up in 10 minutes.'
Frank Keating took a Guardian page-one spot to record the appropriate opposition for the last act: 'The Australians have always been the senior foe and butt of his baronial wholeheartedness.' Keating suggested each Botham feat was 'logged with swash and buckle, a wolfish grin, and the promise of foaming pints or vintage wines'. And he quoted the John Lennon comment: 'A working-class hero is something to be,' declaring 'Botham rampagingly made flesh of the lyric'. The Guardian called in Greg Baum of the Melbourne Age for Australian tribute, quoting Botham's Durham team-mate Dean Jones as saying the great man had been struggling lately for motivation.
Oddly, in the world of mass-circulation tabloids, which always made the most of Botham's mass appeal, only the slightly genteel Daily Express ran the story on the front, promoting an exclusive inter-view with Mrs Kathy Botham. She backed her husband's decision to bow out before he became a has-been, but 'she warned fans to expect fireworks in his autobiography', which would contain 'a few shocks and a few home truths'.
Colin Bateman on the sports pages offered one of the most thoughtful assessments. He suggested the farewell would run and run, the final first-class match to be followed by a final Sunday League game (not so, it turned out), then a round of exhibition games, and perhaps a few Over-35 'Tests'. But he wondered if Botham had the 'charm or perceptiveness to endure in the celebrity stakes as Henry Cooper and Geoff Boycott and David Gower and Gary Lineker are likely to'. He noted Botham had 'snubbed his nose at Lord's when it suited, but is true-blue Establishment, a Thatcher man, Royalist, and a disciplinarian for his children'.
The Mirror, with closest current Botham links, did its man proud, running four full pages stacked with colour pictures and tributes from contemporaries. Chris Lander, the journalist nearest to Botham, provided two personal interviews, in one of which the hero declared he was 'deter-mined not to become cricket's version of Frank Sinatra' (although the key to his status is surely that he did everything 'My Way').
The Sun, stressing value for money as it sold at 20 pence instead of its usual 25, ran Ian Todd's forecast that the mighty chap was set for a million-pound jackpot. A story by John Richardson cast a slight shadow: this suggested Botham had seen the writing on the wall, quoting Durham chairman Don Robson as saying he was 'heading for the chop in the last few weeks of a great career'.
The Mail ran a questioning assessment in which Roy Hattersley, the second-most voluble Yorkshire cricket enthusiast in today's media, suggested 'had he kept his swashbuckling for cricket, he might, singlehandedly, have made the game so attractive that crowds would have been encouraged without the need to dress up players in pyjamas'. Botham was indisputably one of the great cricketers of his age, 'but he might have been the greatest of all time'.
Sports editors traditionally write little in their own pages (unlike America, where the sports editor is often the star columnist). But Paul Newman of the Independent felt it significant enough to ask, under the heading 'Britain's great need for heroes': 'Has there been a worse year for British sport?' He linked the loss of Botham to that in one fashion or another of Brian Clough, Peter Scudamore, Bobby Moore, James Hunt, Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Nigel Mansell.
What was lacking now was 'not so much excellence, as entertainment. If sport is to flourish as a spectacle, then we must do everything possible to encourage the next generation of sporting entertainers. It is people with the flair, genius and passion of Ian Botham that the sporting public wants to see, above all else.'
Derek Hodgson, who sets cricket in historical context, suggested that in much of what Botham did, on and off the field, 'he was excessive -- but Regency England would have recognised him instantly. For Ian Botham, read John Bull.' Martin John-son for once allowed passion to burst through his continuing search for one-liners: his heartfelt tribute noted that 'cricket reflects a man's character like no other sport, and had Botham not been larger than life off the field, neither would he have been the player he was on it'. England, he asserted, had never replaced Botham -- 'and those of us privileged to watch cricket while he was playing can state with some conviction that they never will'.
The Times was curiously niggardly: did the Botham bravado grate on elegant editor Peter Stothard? It tucked away the news on page one, as tailpiece to a brief report of golfer Greg Norman's Open triumph: in the sports pages, Michael Henderson got just 500 words to pay tribute to 'England's greatest entertainer since Denis Compton', noting that, like Compton, 'Botham will be missed for his manner as much as his achievements. It can be said, as of few others -- we shall not look upon his like again.'
The last word must go to the Financial Times, which put this business of cricket into some sort of perspective. It ignored glorious yesterday with the simple report: 'Durham county player Ian Botham retires today from first-class cricket, two months earlier than expected, at the end of his team's match against the Australians.' Durham county player? It's one way of describing the greatest of his time.