The independent voice of cricket


Botham v Chappell: The bitter and enduring rivalry of the Ians

Richard H Thomas by Richard H Thomas
@rich_thomas99 6 minute read

The feud between Ian Chappell and Ian Botham is one that’s spanned five decades, covering commentary boxes and car parks with seemingly little hope of reconciliation. Richard H Thomas examines an Anglo-Aussie rivalry between two big beasts of the game who perhaps have more in common than they’d care to admit.

It’s an Ashes year, and a delicious menu of tussles awaits. Can Mitchell Johnson annihilate England’s middle order on softer, slower pitches? Post ‘Big Cheese’-gate, will Anderson and Broad tame the larrikin Davey Warner and halt Steve Smith’s purple patch?

Alongside these clashes will be the continuation of the most enduring and bitter of Ashes feuds. Perhaps it’s one we would sooner go away, but it seems the animosity between Sir Ian Botham and Ian Chappell still has plenty left in the tank.

With a first name and an unwillingness to take a backward step in common, time has not diminished the unpleasantness. On paper, they should be at least a little friendlier. “The two Ians will know deep down that they are more alike than they let on,” writes Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian. Each has had successful media careers after triumphant playing days characterised by strong, no-nonsense opinions. Neither “minces their words”, says Martin Williamson; or, in other words, “they’ll both call a spade ‘a ******* shovel’.”

In his heyday, Botham – mulleted and muscular – lived and played cricket like the blueprint of a red-blooded Aussie. In contrast, Chappell ruled the roost with an almost Jardinian ruthlessness. One might well have imagined some common ground and the recognition of something familiar within the other, yet they have maintained their feud for almost 40 years.


The bad blood did not start on the field. In Tests they faced each other only twice, in the ‘non-Ashes’ series in 1979/80. While Australia notched comfortable victories in both and won the war, Botham – with more runs (154 versus 152), a century (119*), a better average (51.3 versus 50.7), more wickets (8 versus 0) and more catches (2 versus 1) – won the battles.

Indeed, Richie Benaud’s assessment that “Chappell will be remembered as much for his bid to improve the players’ lot as he will for his run-getting and captaincy” seems to implicitly laud his role as shop steward over anything he did on the field. By way of confirmation, Jack Pollard claimed in 1982 that Chappell had exerted more influence on Australian cricket than anyone else in the previous 20 years.

Botham, meanwhile, inspires the florid words that Chappell does not. When batting or bowling, suggested Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, Botham made fans of people “who would normally subscribe to the crude prejudice that cricket is only slightly less boring than watching celery grow or car bumpers rust”.

However, the testiness started long before Botham had developed his legend. In 1977, says Martin Williamson, Botham was a “21-year-old with no shortage of self-belief and two ODIs under his belt” playing some club cricket in Australia. Chappell’s candid and blunt assessment of English cricket in a Melbourne bar was too much for Botham. “I gave him three official warnings,” he recalled, “all of which he ignored, so the next time he started, I just flattened him.”

As Simon Wilde writes in Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory: “Botham thumping Chappell is certainly a common portrayal of what was understood to have happened.” However, according to Wilde, the facts surrounding the Melbourne incident are surrounded by either “dispute or confusion”. Either way, notes Martin Johnson, none of the various versions “involves the pair slapping each other playfully on the back and demanding to buy the next round”.

Chappell’s version is that “Botham threatened him with a broken glass”. As a result of either a punch or shove, Chappell “came to part company with his stool”, the incident ending with the Aussie “fleeing the scene” (Botham’s version) or “leaving in a calm and dignified manner” (Chappell’s version). “While the initial argument may belong to ancient history,” reports Williamson, neither will “accept their own version of events is wrong”. In other words, someone’s telling porkies.

The rancor has been kept simmering with regular waspishness. “Someone is going to regret awarding him a knighthood,” said Chappell. “As a human being he’s a nonentity,” retorted Botham. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” concluded Chappell when it was suggested his nemesis might be correct regarding some calls from the commentary box. The atmosphere has not been improved by Chappell’s claims that he mutes Botham’s commentary as he “can’t stand his voice”.

In general, wrote David Lloyd in The Ashes According To Bumble, although Botham and Chappell are often in the same vicinity, “for the good of world peace they do everything they can to avoid each other”. Sometimes, however, they are destined to meet. When the Sky and Channel Nine broadcast trucks found themselves stationed next to each other at Adelaide during the 2010/11 Ashes words were exchanged in a car park. Lloyd relays the ‘conversation’ as an almost unbroken stream of asterisks and reports that a floor manager had to step in to halt brouhaha. Botham took two days to calm down.

“Sustaining a feud for so long is a devilishly difficult trick to achieve,” says Matthew Norman, demanding as it does “rigorous commitment, ferocious self-righteousness and absolute integrity”. Martin Johnson reports that in an apparent moment of self-reflection, Chappell conceded that blame lay with both parties and that their verbals usually follow the same routine, with Chappell making reference to Botham’s “long-distance relationship with the truth” or “an uncomplimentary remark about his intelligence”. Botham’s response, claims Chappell, is short, unprintable and as unpleasant as it is unequivocal.

Of course commentators are not duty-bound to be each other’s besties. BBC veteran Don Mosey, for example, was generally not enamoured with his public school-educated colleagues on Test Match Special, while John Arlott was apparently no great fan of EW ‘Jim’ Swanton. “Imagine,” asked Arlott rhetorically, “what it must be like to write as much as Swanton did over so many years without leaving one memorable sentence?”

Aussie commentator Alan McGilvray, another titan of cricket broadcasting, never really enjoyed the light, cheery style of TMS and had little rapport with Arlott, according to Arunabha Sengupta. None of these grating personal relationships resulted in upturned bar stools, threats of violence or car park confrontations, though.

It all adds a jalapeno-hot element to Anglo-Australian encounters. “In their eyes,” says Kevin Mitchell, “they are no more than unflinchingly honest, wreathed in integrity” while “the rest of us, obviously more fallible, can only watch from outside, compellingly amused”. If the on-field drama is ever lukewarm, suggests Matthew Norman, “these mangily superannuated stags” can always “lock antlers” once more, reminding us (as if we need a reminder) why “George Orwell defined international sport as war without weapons”.

Jocularity aside, perhaps it has all become rather unsightly. After all, both men are now grandfathers. Of late there have been hopes of more benevolence between opponents but perhaps those hopes are in vain when senior Ashes protagonists maintain such a public and pathological dislike for each other.

Of course, the hand of friendship from either direction might be as welcome as impetigo, but if nothing else they are patriots, pundits and opponents – is being pals really out of the question? It might be appropriate if the malevolence ended where it started – in the pub. “After all,” Kevin Mitchell reminds us, “they both like a drink”.

First published in March 2015.

Have Your Say

Become a Wisden member

  • Exclusive offers and competitions
  • Money-can’t-buy experiences
  • Join the Wisden community
  • Sign up for free
Latest magazine

Get the magazine

12 Issues for just £39.99