The 1981 season has gone down in cricketing legend as Botham's Summer. His heroics against Australia are the stuff of folklore - but it so nearly ended in tears.
At the start of the season, Botham was under fire on a number of fronts. A year earlier he had taken over the England captaincy from Mike Brearley, but little had gone right for him. In 10 Tests (admittedly all but one against West Indies) England had lost three and drawn seven. Alarmingly, Botham's own form - and fitness - had nosedived. His batting average had slipped to 14.23 (with a best of 57) and his bowling to 34.70 (before he took over the comparable figures were 40.48 and 18.52). The press were on his case, and a court case for alleged assault was hanging over his head (he was cleared later in the year).
In May, he was appointed captain for the three-match one-day series against Australia, which England lost 1-2. The pressure on him increased when he was subsequently named captain for the first Ashes Test only. Although they could have won, dropped catches, including one by Botham himself, cost England dear and Australia went to Lord's 1-0 up.
Botham was reappointed, again for the one match, but the uncertainty had taken a heavy toll, and he later wrote that he had decided to resign after the game anyway. The pressure was not only affecting his form, but also his family. Kath, his wife, begged him to stand down after the first Test. "It was clear to her the selectors were holding a gun to my head," he recalled. "She said: 'It's not worth it... why don't you just give up'."
The first-day crowd at Lord's arrived to an Evening Standard headline of "Botham Must Go". The quality press were slightly more polite, the Guardian noting that he "probably could not afford another failure". But the sentiment was the same.
They didn't have to wait too long. For Botham, it was another personal disaster, even though the match was drawn. A duck in the first innings was followed by a first-baller, bowled round his legs by Ray Bright, as England pressed for quick runs. He returned to a deafening silence.
"As I came back towards the pavilion gate not a soul among the Lord's members mumbled `bad luck' and not a single MCC member looked me in the eye," he later wrote. "They all just sat there dumbstruck. Some picked up their papers and hid behind them, others rummaged in their bags. Needless to say, I was fuming." Kathy Botham shared her husband's view. "I saw them as dark-suited vultures who had been waiting for the kill."
As Botham prepared to resign at the end of the Test - he later claimed he had already written the letter before the start of the final day - the selectors delivered the blow in any case. The timing is disputed, but what is not is that had he not resigned, he would have been sacked.
Alec Bedser, the chairman of selection, later claimed Botham asked to be allowed to say he had quit, and while he agreed, he warned him that the press would not necessarily believe that line. Asked a direct question minutes later, Bedser merely confirmed that, either way, Botham would have gone. "We saw a dream fading," he said, "and our plans falling apart." Botham was livid. "A more dignified, civilised man... would have kept his mouth shut," he noted.
In his autobiography, Botham wrote that his dismissal came at a time when he was just getting the hang of the job, but others were not so sure. Bob Taylor, England's wicketkeeper, said that in the build-up to the game, Botham was listless. "He didn't seem to be able to get the other lads going. We all just went through the motions in the warm-up and nets."
In the post-match speculation it was widely reported that Botham would be dropped, and even that he was going to take a complete break from the game. But that was not in his or the selectors' minds.
Botham's successor, ironically appointed for the remaining four matches of the series, was named later that week. Among the frontrunners were Mike Brearley, his predecessor, Essex skipper Keith Fletcher, and establishment man Roger Knight. Brearley, named 24 hours later, appreciated the importance of a fired-up Botham to the side. "I feel sorry for Ian," he said. "He's up to the brim with it... he is still a key player in the side."
Not everyone agreed, and many thought Botham should be dropped. In his Sunday Mirror column, former England captain Ray Illingworth said Botham was "overweight, overrated and overpaid".
After a selection meeting in which leaving Botham out was never seriously considered, England arrived at Headingley, where the new and old captains met. "Do you want to play," asked Brearley, "or do you want to be left out?" Botham made it abundantly clear he wanted to be included. "Of course I bloody want to," he replied. "I thought he was crazy until, suddenly, I realised he knew fully that I wanted to play," Botham said. It was not the last time that summer that Brearley used mindgames to get the best out of Botham.
"He was an old man, standing in the slips, complaining about his feet aching, and all the while telling me to bowl properly," Botham recalled. "And I don't know what it is, but I took stuff from him that I'd clip others round the ear for."
Within a fortnight of his humiliation at Lord's, Botham was again England's hero. But it could all have been so different.
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Bibliography Botham: My Autobiography, Ian Botham (CollinsWillow, 1994) Living With A Legend, Kathy Botham (HarperCollins, 1988) Phoenix From The Ashes, Mike Brearley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982) The Bedsers, Alan Hill (Mainstream, 2001) The Cricketer Various, 1981 Wisden Cricket Monthly Various, 1981