Sport on TV: Botham's heroics with bat and barbecue still serve up a feast

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The Independent Online

Something strange and extraordinary was always likely to happen in the summer of '81. There was political turmoil, rioting in the inner cities, and David Icke was presenting the sports news. It was a different world then, though not as different as Icke's world was soon to become, during his "turquoise period".

Then there were MCC members in the Lord's pavilion refusing to clap and turning their faces away when Ian Botham collected a pair of ducks against Australia. The country's most explosive cricketer for many a year appeared handcuffed and beaten. He might well have ducked if the old codgers had had enough strength to throw their rotten eggs (and bacon). Instead he stood down as captain.

Then came Headingley, and the summer turned on an innings that his replacement as skipper, Mike Brearley, described as "pure village green" in Botham: The Legend of '81 (BBC2, Wednesday). It took a force of nature from the bucolic West Country to unite the rest of the nation as the cities burned. England went on to win the Ashes in one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time.

Of the rioting, Botham said: "You'd drive to grounds and see the smoke billowing out from the night before." He might have been talking about the barbecue he held at his home on the Saturday night when all seemed lost and the Ashes had all but slipped away. But out of the ashes of Beefy's burgers flew the phoenix, which must mark it down as one of the greatest barbecues of all time.

One small but important detail was missing from this excellent account: Brearley, Botham's guru, sent a signal out to the middle, telling him to play a few shots and enjoy himself. With that gesture he lifted the weight of the world off Botham's shoulders and allowed him to open them. Those broad shoulders would prove strong enough to carry the country's hopes along with him for the rest of an unforgettable summer.

Beefy's legs turned out to be even more important than his shoulders. The programme, unnecessarily, went on to describe his fall and salacious handling by those dear old friends of ours, the tabloids, before relating his redemption through a quarter of a century of charity walks which have increased the chances of survival for leukaemia sufferers from one in five to more than 90 per cent.

How huge was the contrast with another English "great", Bryan Robson, lurking in a dingy bar in Thailand, cutting shady deals in Dispatches: How to Buy a Football Club (Channel 4, Monday). Captain Marvel, whose shoulders didn't prove strong enough in the 1986 World Cup, is acting as a consultant for Andrew Leppard's London Nominees Football Fund as they try to flog English football clubs to foreign investors.

Robbo tells the undercover programme-makers that he was a manager in the Premier League for 12 years but omits to mention he was rubbish at it. So when Leppard says, "The good thing about a football club is that you can buy it and nobody will know it's you," he may as well have been talking to Robson.

The fixer, Manchester United Bar owner Joe Sim, claims: "I am very happy because Alex Ferguson is my brother." You have to doubt his claim; after all, if they are related, why isn't Sim's face bright purple? Meanwhile we await the next development in this saga: Robbo meets Robocop.