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Golden Summer, 1981: Sneaking around school to catch a bit of Botham

Ian Botham 1981
by Steve McDowell 6 minute read

Steve McDowell recalls having witnessed the all-round magnificence of Ian Botham – his hero – during the unforgettable English summer of 1981.

First published in 2016

Some men are born to greatness, some men achieve greatness and for some, greatness is thrust upon them.

Only one man, however, can say he was all three.

Ian Terence Botham.

When I was 13 and a skinny, callow youth with a mop fringe and a blossoming issue with authority, the swashbuckling Beefy was God.

I had known Botham since his debut in 1977 when he took five-for in Australia. I was only then vaguely aware of Australia as a faraway land full of lethal animals and obnoxious drunk people (actually come to think of it, not too different from today, but I digress).

Of course it was tough to catch the games then, with only occasional late night Channel Nine highlights on the BBC.

In 1981, I was incarcerated in a third-rate rural English public school in a summer term which had no interest for me, as, not being very good at cricket, I was rarely selected for the under 14s. I was bored out of my spotty skull and desperate to watch the cricket.

But despite my repeated entreaties to cruel and stony-hearted schoolmasters, I was informed the Test match was verboten and that I should be ashamed of myself. Latin grammar was, after all, much more fun, they said.

Botham was captain and he was getting hammered. Greatness had been thrust upon him and one could see the pressure of captaincy was leaning hard upon him.

I was distraught and contemplating escape when I made a discovery.

What the school did have was rather good TV facilities and bearing in mind that a VCR player in those days was about the size of a small hatchback and twice as expensive, all the good kit was locked away from rapacious teenage fingers.

However, being already a sneaky bastard, I had become aware of a room behind the lecture theatre which was equipped with not one but two tellies, headphones, a VCR and better still a locked door.

This was a room which some of the sixth-formers habitually used to attend very private screenings of Swedish Art House Cinema and so, if one timed it correctly, a swift application of a six-inch strip of plastic from the top of an ice-cream container could slip the somewhat relaxed Yale lock.

So in my secure, if slightly musty, bunker and armed with a laissez-faire attitude towards the school curriculum, I was free to be enraptured by the live game.

The first Test at Trent Bridge was a nightmare for your average Bothamaniac. Out for 1 first dig and a scratchy 33 in the second, the match was lost by four wickets after England were bowled out for 125.

Then it started; the media avalanche against my hero – not fit to captain, they said. I devoured my fingernails and read every newspaper before the Lord’s match.

I remember little of it other than the dull thud of my heart breaking as Botham bags a pair and trudges forlornly up the pavilion stairs, not holding eye contact with the silent and sulking members. I was outraged. How dare they, I gibbered between sobs of disappointed tears. I have never forgiven the MCC members for that, which is almost certainly the reason why I was for many years a member of Surrey.

I was broken but, with classic teenage resilience, couldn’t wait for the third Test at Headingley when it was announced the genius Mike Brearley had been brought back and Botham was in.

Few cricket fans will need reminding. Botham scratches out 50 in a piss-poor England batting performance and they follow on 240-odd behind. But as he comes out, arms swinging, for a desperate second-innings knock, no one knew what was going to happen next – not even the confectionery stall.

The image of Botham slashing his way to 149* remains burned into my memory as does the pumping run-in of Bob Willis executing quite possibly the greatest spell of fast bowling ever – his 8-43 snatching victory for England.

Bob Willis

Bob Willis running off the Headingley outfield after taking the final Australian wicket in England’s famous victory

But it was events at Edgbaston in the next game that really brought my summer to perfection.

It is a low-scoring game and the Aussies need only 151 to win in the fourth knock.

Australia are 114-5 with Willis and Emburey chipping away but it’s still a huge ask and it needs a touch of magic. Botham is still in the doldrums, according to skipper Brearley writing later, who deploys his legendary mind games and coerces Beef into taking the ball.

Queue the magic.

Wicket one: round the wicket to the left-handed Rod Marsh, the yorker angles in from wide of the crease – it’s on the button and Marsh, foolishly trying to play to leg, is way, way behind it. His middle stump fires yards like a grass torpedo. “114-6” says Richie Benaud, “and the crowd have gone noisily berserk.”

Wicket two: Over the wicket this time to the distinctly average spinner Ray Bright. Beef is barrelling in like a man running from the last charge of a Zulu Impi. Too quick again and Bright, frozen in the glare of Botham’s magnificence, is plumb in front. “He’s out,” dead-pans Richie, “and Botham is on a hat-trick.” I am on the floor with my fist in my mouth and trying not to wee.

Wicket three: The Beefster is now over-striding as his confidence overwhelms him and mistimes his release: he unleashes a classic Botham ball, it pitches two feet wide of off-stump and bends out like a Swingball in a Force 10. DK Lillee obliges by stepping out and slashing at it and the grey-haired bullet Bob Taylor takes the catch ankle-high between first and second slip. 120-8.

Wicket four: Martin Kent looks like a toddler lost in Asda and meanders blubbing at the crease. There is no doubt as his bails form an honour guard on the way back to the pavilion, bowled Botham, 10. 121-9. And who would believe it, says Jim Laker in the commentary box. Me, that’s who.

Wicket five: Alderman offers the resistance of a rice pudding skin as his stumps are spread like jam to a straight one that lifts. Lord, Generalissimo, his Excellency King Ian Terence has taken 5-1 in 28 balls and crushed the hated enemy.

“He’s done it!”: 5-1 in 28 balls – job done

Botham does not even pause in his follow-through but grabs a stump and sprints for the dressing room. I have lost the plot, bellowing with admiration and not caring that I was, quite literally, risking my arse by doing so.

14-9-11-5. Had I been old enough I would have had it tattooed on my heart.

My normal surly teenage demeanour had vaporised as I went through the school with a big cheesy grin, cheerfully greeting everyone in my path.

The school decreed that everyone would now be able to watch the cricket during break periods.

Too late.

School was out and Botham had achieved greatness.

First published in 2016

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