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Being Botham: What is it like being England’s greatest ever cricketer?

Ian Botham
by Dean Wilson 12 minute read

He was the most famous cricketer in the world in his day, and little has changed since. In 2010, Ian Botham spoke to Dean Wilson about what it’s like to be him…

First published in 2010

To many he is the face of cricket; to others he is cricket. He writes bestsellers. He does TV programmes about fishing. He famously enjoys a drink. And by all accounts, he can’t stand Ian Chappell. But what is it like being Ian Botham? We spoke with the man himself.

How does it feel to be regarded as England’s greatest ever cricketer?

I’m very flattered to be considered England’s greatest cricketer by the readers of All Out Cricket, because it shows that the public were happy with what I achieved as a cricketer and that they felt I did our country proud. There have been so many fine cricketers to play for England over the years and I think we’ve all contributed something to the game, so to be voted as the greatest fills me with a great sense of pride and satisfaction that what I did on the field went down so well with so many people.

And twenty-odd years after packing it in, what do you put your enduring appeal with the public down to?

I think that is mainly down to the way I played the game. I think there is always an extra affection for sportsmen who go about their business in a certain way on the field and by being aggressive, playing to win, trying to entertain and never giving up. I probably met the right criteria. I was never too fussed about my stats and figures, I just wanted to take wickets and score runs for the team and if I gave my wicket away in the push for quick runs then the public accepted that. When it came off it was great fun to be a part of and maybe a little bit of that fun rubbed off on the spectators.

Do you find it strange that people who have never seen you play live idolise you?

I don’t think it is strange because modern technology allows people to see things that they might not otherwise have seen 10 or 15 years ago. If a father is telling his son about the day Ian Botham hit the Aussies around the park at Old Trafford, he can bring it up on YouTube in an instant and see it for himself. What that can’t show though is what it felt like at the time, because I do believe that sporting achievements are affected by what is going on around them. The 2005 Ashes triumph was unique not only because of the quality of cricket but because it had been so long since England had won them. You don’t get that just from a replay. It is nice when young kids come up to me and ask for an autograph or a photo and they have a genuine interest in cricket and I get to make their day. It’s not so good when their grandfathers come up and say how they remembered watching you, especially when I don’t feel that old!

Is it weird thinking of yourself as a hero?

I don’t think of myself like that really. I see myself as a bloke who had a bit of talent for the game of cricket and made the most of it. Along the way I was able to entertain a few people and make them happy. If that makes me a hero then that is for others to judge, but I’m no different from any other person who finds something they are good at and goes about making a life for them and their family. A sporting hero is something a little different and I’m happy to keep the company of some great British sporting heroes like Sir Nick Faldo, Daley Thompson and Jason Leonard. Being thought of by others as a hero is something you get used to and is a sign that you’re doing well, but it doesn’t change who you are, and I certainly don’t look at myself and think about it in those terms.

As a kid, did you always think you’d play for England?

I always thought I would play sport professionally, initially I was mad about football, but as I grew up cricket took over. As a kid whenever you’re playing sport in the garden or after school you pretend to be like the very best and for me that was trying to be like Ken Barrington. I loved the way he stuck his chest out and went about playing the game. He was ready to take on anyone and everyone and I loved that bulldog spirit about him. Whenever I bowled I pretended to be Fred Trueman and I would roll up my sleeve with a flourish on the way back to my mark. It is nice to think that a few kids have done that pretending to be me over the years.

Was there ever a time where your celebrity status got in the way of your on-field performances?

I don’t think it ever did. Even though one came about as a direct result of the other, I was always focused on what I was doing in the middle once I got out there. The celebrity stuff is not really what it seems either. People think that Elton John and Mick Jagger are the same when they come to watch the cricket as when they are on the stage performing and that’s simply not true. They are cricket fans and fairly normal people so when I’m with them it is like any old mates having a chat and getting along. My job was to play cricket to the best of my ability and that is what I did, if I went out and enjoyed the other side of life after a game then that was separate, and it didn’t rob me of any runs, wickets or catches.

You’re renowned as a master prankster, what is the favourite prank you ever pulled?

Every prank or wind up I have done has always been on the spur of the moment. Some people plan everything including what time they go to the toilet, but I’ve always been a bit more instinctive and my pranks fall into that category. Anyone who knows me or played with me knows that I have a very low boredom threshold, so I can’t sit still for long watching the game, I’ve got to get up and do something. It might be cutting the toes off someone’s socks or squeezing shampoo into their boots, which was always a good one on a hot and sticky day. There was never a plan to it, although I might have an issue with footwear because quite a few of them revolved around boots or shoes. Only recently Nasser Hussain was walking around the comm box in just his socks, goodness knows why. I found his shoes and stuck them in the freezer for the afternoon.

How do you look back on your time as England captain?

I thought I did alright as a captain. I lost one-nil and two-nil away to West Indies, the finest side the game has seen and even the one I lost in England was only by two wickets and could easily have been a win. In the Caribbean we lost Ken Barrington which undoubtedly affected us all, but we still only lost the two matches. When I got back to the UK I felt I was getting used to the job, and it does take time to settle into it, only for the selectors, in their infinite wisdom, to give me the captaincy on a game-by-game basis which was ridiculous. Nine of my 12 Tests in charge were against the West Indies who weren’t a bad side.

What was the toughest tour you ever went on?

The tour to the West Indies as captain in 1981 was so tough for me for a number of reasons. We were up against the greatest side ever to play the game in my opinion which made it tough enough, but to also suffer the tragic death of my mentor and friend Ken Barrington, who was the assistant manager on that trip, made it so much more so. Tours to Australia are notoriously tough and the Ashes trip of 1982/83 was a particularly hard one for us, but to go to the West Indies when their team and their fans were all over you from ball one until they had usually won was just as hard as it gets. And don’t think that the beaches or the sun made it any easier to cope with. That just made the bruises a bit darker.

Immediately after your retirement, did you find it difficult to come to terms with the idea that you were never going to play again?

No, my mind was made up and when I retired I had no intention of playing again. My body was in pieces and I couldn’t physically play at that level anymore. Luckily for me I already knew that at some point in the near future I would be moving into the commentary box with Sky so unlike some players who are lost without the game when they finish, I wasn’t. The biggest problem for players when they retire is the loss of that dressing room camaraderie and the banter that has been their life-blood for so many years. The dressing room becomes their family really and I know through the work I do with the Professional Cricketers’ Association just how tough that can be for a man in his thirties wondering what comes next. It is something the game must try to help players overcome and the PCA does a lot of great work in this regard. I was lucky because I could take a bit of a sabbatical for about two years to have a rest from the game which I needed and the game probably needed from me, and then I was able to start the next phase of my life in the Sky commentary box which was like stepping into another dressing room and I’ve loved every minute of it.

What has been the most important moment of your career?

The moment that changed my life forever was Headingley 1981 and overnight things were never to be the same for me again. It was a magnificent moment for me and the England team and I will never forget it or look back on it with anything other than huge pride and fondness. When I walked out to bat against Australia that day with everything that had gone before it as far as the team and the captaincy was concerned, I didn’t expect to be sprinting back through the crowds 145 runs later and with a loose foothold in the match. But I had certainly not given up on the game and I wanted to land a few blows on the Aussies’ nose before I was done. I ended up doing a bit more than that before Bob Willis delivered the knockout punch the next day with the best piece of fast bowling an England player has ever produced. That whole match and the rest of the series that followed set my life on the path it has been on ever since.

Botham during his epic 149* at Headingley. Things would never be the same again

Have you ever been starstruck – and if yes, who was it?

Just once. It was a few years ago now and I was on a yacht and got to have lunch with this person and as I spent more time with him I became more and more in awe of him. I felt so lucky and privileged to have been able to meet him when I did and I’ve subsequently seen him a few times, and each and every time I’m honoured to be in his company. Just a great man with more compassion and warmth than anyone I’ve ever met. Nelson Mandela.

I would also say that, while I wasn’t starstruck, The Queen is also an incredible person and I do feel particularly lucky whenever I meet her.

What winds you up?

Not too much if I’m honest. Life is too short to get wound up, so I just like to get on with things and every day is a new day. I’m lucky, because I enjoy life, and I have a great family and some great friends around me to enjoy it with. As a player I was probably the one doing the winding up. I was naturally aggressive on the field so I think that annoyed a few people over the years, but who cares. Get over it. I might have wound the odd person up, but I made far more friends than enemies and to this day I can go anywhere in the world and have a glass of wine and a bed to rest my head if I need it, thanks to cricket and the charity work that I’ve done.

Do you ever get nervous now and did you ever suffer from nerves as a player?

No, what is there to be nervous about? People talk about nerves and pressure, but I can’t understand that. Pressure is what makes kettles whistle.

As a sportsman you want to be out there in the arena doing what you do best. When I walked over the rope that was my stage and that was where I performed. Just like an actor walking out at the Palladium or a musician playing at the Royal Albert Hall, these are the places you want to be. What is all the hard work and training for if the moment you get to the point at where it matters you get nervous? I had the adrenaline pumping of course and the heart rate would go up a notch, but that was to be enjoyed because it was a signal that the show was about to begin and that is a great feeling. I know that wasn’t the same and isn’t the same for all players, I found that out as a captain. But for me, nerves? No way.

What’s wrong and what’s right about the game today?

In general for me I’m happiest when England is doing well and I hate watching them do badly, there is still that level of support for the side that will never leave me.

In terms of what I don’t like about the game at the moment, I think Twenty20 cricket is being run terribly. Why on earth they have just expanded and doubled the amount of fixtures is beyond me. They saw big crowds for the games and just got greedy. They have gone for overkill which is something I warned against from the very start and Twenty20 is being strangled by those in charge. Also I wouldn’t play T20 internationally, the players don’t need it and neither does the game. It is a club game, it is the icing on the cake and a way to introduce young people to cricket, but it is not the be all and end all. Test cricket is still the litmus test for proper cricketers.

First published in 2010

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