For issue 36 of Wisden Cricket Monthly Jo Harman spoke to the most influential English cricketer of the 20th century about the DNA of a great all-rounder, the trappings of fame and learning to takes things slow.
First published in issue 36 of Wisden Cricket Monthly (October 2020)
Sir Ian Botham is speaking to WCM from the Outer Hebrides, enjoying a rare opportunity for a summer holiday with his family. While David Gower, his former England teammate and longtime colleague in the commentary box, has spoken openly about the wrench of being let go by Sky last year, and the void it has left in his life since, Botham, who was also put out to pasture, insists he’s enjoying a slower pace of life as he approaches his 65th birthday.
“Everything has a shelf life and after 23 years as a commentator I think it was time to move on, to let some younger blood in,” he says. “Younger ideas, newer ideas. Maybe the game’s moved on from when I played. The freedom I’ve got now to move around, I didn’t have as a player or as a commentator – you were pretty much dictated to by the cricket schedule. It was overdue, my move away from commentary, and I’m loving what I’m doing now.”
That involves being chairman at Durham CCC, a position he was appointed to in 2017, and will soon include taking a seat in the House of Lords, reward from Boris Johnson for Botham’s support in the Brexit campaign, during which he went “in to bat for my beliefs”, describing the EU as a “racket” in a column splashed across the front of the Sunday Times. But while surrendering power to the “bureaucrats in Brussels” got Beefy’s blood boiling, it’s wine that really gets it pumping.
“I make wine, and that’s what I do now. I love it. It’s something I should perhaps have started 10 years ago. I probably get as much enjoyment out of getting a gold medal in an international wine show or getting into a top 100 as scoring a hundred.” He pauses. “Or it’s a very similar feeling of achievement.”
By the twilight of his broadcasting career, Botham had become something of a relic, increasingly at odds with the action he was covering. He often sounded dismissive or suspicious of aspects of the modern game which fell outside his own sphere, such as
strength and conditioning or statistical analysis, and he never appeared to have much appetite for T20.
For a younger cricketing audience who hadn’t witnessed Botham’s epic feats as a player, and had Flintoff in 2005, or even Stokes in 2019, as their entry point into the game, he had become increasingly irrelevant – known for wine, for Brexit, for charity walks, for knighthoods and peerages, but not necessarily for what made him famous in the first place. For being the most influential English cricketer since WG Grace.
It’s worth revisiting just what a phenomenon Botham was, particularly in the first half of his career. Following eight five-fors in his first 11 Tests, in 1979, at the age of just 23, Botham became the fifth-fastest in history to 100 wickets. Two years later, after 41 Tests, he became the third-fastest to 200 wickets, by which time he’d also made eight of his 14 hundreds. He scored a century and took five wickets in the same Test on five occasions – a feat no other player has managed more than twice in their career – and at Mumbai in 1980 he became the first man to score a century and take 10 wickets in the same Test. Only his great rival Imran Khan and Shakib Al Hasan have matched that in the 40 years since.
From his debut in 1977 to the conclusion of the home series against India in 1982, a period which covers exactly half of Botham’s 102 Test matches, he averaged 38.80 with the bat – with an astonishing 11 centuries – and 23.06 with the ball. If he had called it a day then, we would be talking about an all-rounder to challenge Sobers for the title of the greatest of all-time.
Those extraordinary numbers gradually – and perhaps inevitably – tailed off in subsequent years, the Herculean performances thinning out as the scale of Botham’s personality began to overshadow his feats on the pitch and serious back injuries took their toll. But he remained a magnetic, era-defining cricketer, and the archetype of what we still understand to be a true all-rounder.
Who in your mind is the greatest all-rounder of them all?
Garry Sobers. He did everything. As all-rounders go, I think Garry was the most complete: fantastic fielder, magnificent batsman, averaging above 50, he could bowl left-arm swing and also bowl Chinamen. That’s probably the ultimate in being an all-rounder.
Was Sobers an inspiration to you when you were growing up?
Not so much growing up. My cricketing hero was Kenny Barrington.
Barrington isn’t the style of batsman you’d necessarily be associated with?
I’ll tell you for why, I always thought he went out there with the British Bulldog on his chest. He would give as good as he got. I got to know him quite well after he finished playing and then became a selector. I played a lot of golf with Kenny and we spent a lot of time together. I came to understand him even more. I always thought he was competitive but when I got to really know him I realised he was extremely competitive. A real fighter, Kenny. That was the thing I enjoyed. You could see him giving it back to the bowlers. He’d run past and give them a little dig in the ribs as he went by.
There’s a theme among all-rounders, particularly in England, of larger-than-life, attention-grabbing characters. Do you think there’s something about that type of personality that naturally lends itself to being an all-rounder?
I think we’re different. It’s a different role. We tend to be workaholics when we’re out there playing – we always want to be involved. That’s just our make-up. I played in an era where we had four magnificent all-rounders in world cricket. That made us even more competitive because we wanted to outdo each other. I’d always check to see if Imran [Khan] had done well, or if Kapil [Dev] had done well, or Richard [Hadlee]. You wanted that No.1 position. I think that was very healthy, it kept us all going. Nowadays, Ben Stokes is obviously right up there. He’s box-office, he’s great to watch, he’s fantastic for the dressing room. Even at Durham, if he’s got a day off, and they don’t get too many these days, he’ll pop in and see the boys. He’s very much a Durham boy and wants to see how the team are doing. He’s exceptional. For me, probably the biggest name in world cricket at the moment.
Mike Brearley has said that he rates you as the better bowler but considers Stokes the more complete batsman. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, absolutely. I’d agree with Brears on that, but time will tell. It’s longevity as an all-rounder that’s important. Ben’s had a few injury problems. We all do. I had spinal operations, Fred [Andrew Flintoff] had a problem with his ankle which caused him all kinds of issues. Your body does take a battering, which again makes us a bit unique, the pain barrier etc. If Ben can’t bowl because he’s carrying an injury, you can see the frustration at times.
What was your relationship like off the field with your rivals, Imran, Kapil and Hadlee?
Good. I haven’t seen Immy for a long time, he’s obviously in a different place now with massive responsibilities. I’m sure we’d have no problems at all. The media tried to stir it up between the two of us quite a lot, which didn’t help, but we all got on fine. Paddles [Hadlee] has not been very well but I keep in touch with him. Kaps, I catch up with him, we play golf together. Certainly, the three of us who are still in cricketing circles, we do catch up in various parts of the world. I haven’t seen Immy for a long time but I wish him well because what he’s doing is very brave. Very tough job.
If you could have taken one attribute or technical skill from those trio and added it to your own game, what would you have chosen?
I mean that quite seriously. Everyone’s different. Who was the best slip fielder out of them? Probably myself. Who was the best bowler in that period? Probably Richard Hadlee, I would say. Kaps did an amazing job with the workload he had on Indian pitches which didn’t give him a lot of assistance. He never really scored the runs. And Imran captained in a difficult time for his team, he had a lot of responsibility and he handled it very well. You wouldn’t swap it around much because each one offered something different.
Why do you think genuine all-rounders are such a rare breed? Because of the physical demands, or simply because not that many people have the skillset to pull it off?
I don’t know. They come along once in a while. We were spoilt in the 80s – we had four apples on the tree. We’ve had a few others but they don’t come around very often. When you get a genuine all-rounder it’s such a blessing for a captain, because suddenly he can free up a spot for another bowler or another batsman. When you’ve got one, wrap him up in cotton wool and let him loose when you want things to happen. I think that’s the way to do it.
In the 90s there was a whole stream of ‘New Bothams’, and the title became something of a curse…
Not just for them, for me too, I can assure you. I used to feel sorry for those guys. Everybody is different and to continually get compared must have put pressure on them. If you’re honest about it, it’s almost easy journalism isn’t it? Just throw that paragraph in again and see what happens.
Were there any of that group who you had high hopes for, and thought they could have gone on to do something special?
Well, some of them were more gifted with the ball than the bat, and there was quite a gap. For me you’ve got to bat in the top six and you’ve got to bowl first change. No, not really, to be honest. Again, it’s a case of longevity. You can be a six-game wonder, but you’ve got to turn that into 10 or 12 years.
What do you think are the pros and cons of playing in your era compared to now? How would you compare the challenges that Ben Stokes has to deal with to your own?
Sorry, how much pressure Ben has to cope with? Were you around in the 70s and 80s? That’s my point really, that there isn’t the same focus on cricketers now. The guys now are looked after a lot better. I remember coming back from an injury in Pakistan and someone said to me… I made some flippant remark [Botham told a reporter that Pakistan was “the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid”]. I was thrown to the wolves. There was no one there to meet me from the authorities. I just walked through the airport. The guys get protected now. They get briefed on what’s coming. There’s always someone there with them, a press liaison officer. In many ways we were the stone-age era when it came to all that. There was a lot of garbage written in that period of time. There was a tabloid war going on, so why let the truth ruin a good story?
Given your crossover fame – being seen as a celebrity as well as a cricketer – did it feel like you were straddling two worlds in a way that other players of that time didn’t have to deal with?
Let’s put it in context. I wouldn’t change anything that happened in that period because I’m a great believer that whatever happens – good or bad – you learn from it, and you go forward. If I had a choice of playing when I played or playing now, I would choose the era I played in, and the reason I say that is I found there was more comradeship. If we’d been in the field all day against Australia, and it was hot, when we came off the field we’d get the wet gear off and in would walk the Aussies with a couple of cold beers and you’d sit around and chat. You didn’t need match referees in those days because it was policed pretty much in the dressing room. If there was a problem you’d sit down and say, ‘OK, what was that all about?’. And it usually resolved itself one way or another. Given a choice, I’d take what I had. I loved it. I’ve got friends all round the world so wherever I go I can always have a glass of wine or a game of golf or go fishing or whatever. There’s always someone. And I don’t know if that’s quite the way it is now.
Do you get the impression that it’s a bit less fun these days?
I think I’d have found it a little bit less fun, yes. And I think a lot of the players I played with would have found it quite difficult to cope with that. The amount of nets and training these guys do now – I’d much rather be playing, believe me, than doing all that. Also, I would find it pretty hard to maintain form. If you’re playing well you want to keep playing, whether that’s for Somerset, Worcester, Durham or England, it didn’t matter.
You had a famously strong relationship with Mike Brearley when he was England captain. Do you see a similar relationship developing between Joe Root and Ben Stokes?
Unless you’re actually in that dressing room it’s hard to pass comment but looking at it through the window that seems to be a strong relationship, and that can only be good for the team. Every captain needs a lieutenant, a No.2, someone who might come up with something different. I stood at second slip and Brears was at first slip and we talked a lot about the game and it’s pretty much the same now – Ben’s usually in the cordon and Joe certainly is. That’s a great place for a discussion.
Stokes had a brief taste of the Test captaincy earlier this summer. Do you think that’s a job he could do in the long term, or given the demands of three formats, and the responsibility that he already carries, that it could be too much to ask of one person?
It certainly affected my game, but then again, I had 12 Tests as captain of which 10 were against the West Indies – and we did quite well actually, I think we lost 1-0 and 2-0. Not 5-0, 5-0. Some people are born to be the right-hand man to the captain and that was probably our relationship. Brears knew how to get the best out of you and I think that’s what the best captains do – they know who to turn to in a crisis. It’s usually the all-rounder. And there was also my great relationship with Bob Willis. He and Brears were great mates so there was a triangle there. Bob and I shared the new ball and we shared a lot of interests in life. Probably the biggest one was a day off in Australia – a lot of guys would go off to the beach, well Bobby and I would go and visit vineyards. We spent a lot of time together and I miss him very much, to be honest. He was a great mentor as well.
Do you think in different circumstances you could have had success as England captain?
Don’t know, to be honest. And not particularly bothered what happened then. I’m not going to moan too much about my career. I carried a spinal injury that could have flared up at any time and I got 10 good years out of it and then came back and played a bit after that including the ’92 World Cup, so I was very lucky.