Sir Ian Botham: 'Pressure? Pressure makes kettles whistle'

The Brian Viner Interview: 'Beefy' never bought into stress at the elite level. He has just compiled his list of British sporting heroes and it's no surprise to find it packed with fellow free spirits
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This is a big year for Sir Ian Botham, fully a quarter of a century since his first epic walk to raise money for Leukaemia Research, and the charity has had more than £10m to show for all his blisters. To mark the anniversary he will be undertaking another walk in April – 10 cities in 10 days – and I have been invited to spend one of the legs walking alongside him, although I'm assured by a mutual friend that I will struggle to keep up with him. I don't doubt it. Better men than me have struggled to keep pace with Botham. David Gower long ago realised that he'd have more success turning back the incoming tide than matching "Beefy" drink for drink on a night out.

In the bar of the swanky Lanesborough Hotel in London, however, the great man limits himself to a couple of (large) glasses of Australian Chardonnay. We meet to chat about his latest book, My Sporting Heroes, in which he lists the 50 men and women from the British Isles who have most inspired him with their sporting exploits, and on the subject of great sporting deeds, I later get to catch up with Botham's thoughts about England's hammering of South Africa in the second Test, on which he commentated for Sky Sports.

"A terrific performance," he says. "Graeme Swann was outstanding yet again [and] that spell with Swann and Broad in tandem really sorted it out. It's all gone well."

It's all going well in the Lanesborough, too. This is the fourth time I have sat down for a natter with Botham, but I cannot honestly say it has always been a pleasure. The second and third times were, and this time he is again a genial presence, but on the first occasion, at Edgbaston cricket ground, I made the mistake of asking whether his son Liam, then 19 and a fledgling county cricketer with Hampshire, was anything like the player that Botham himself had been at the same age.

He went ballistic. "What chance has that kid got with pillocks like you forever comparing him with me?" is the gist of what he thundered, shorn of an Anglo-Saxon word or two. At every subsequent encounter I have reminded him of this outburst, and he always obliges with a chuckle, explaining how sensitive he used to be where Liam's sporting career was concerned, but also reminding me that it was a stupid question, not, in his view, untypical of my profession.

"He got five wickets on his debut and the headlines were all 'A chip off the old block'. It was sloppy journalism, really, and I knew then that he wouldn't stick with cricket. He said, 'Dad, I prefer rugby anyway,' so he became a rugby union player and very nearly got into the full England side. He toured with England to South Africa and would probably have played in the third Test if he hadn't had a stomach virus. He still holds the record at Cardiff for try-scoring. And then he changed codes and played [rugby league] for Leeds Rhinos and Wigan. He had a tremendous sporting career."

It is over now, but I wonder, circumspectly, whether any of the Botham grandchildren might yet keep the name alive in the sporting arena. "Oh, there's something to come there, there's something bubbling there, for sure. But I'm not going to say any more. Maybe they should change their names by deed poll, then reveal to the world at the end who they are."

The pride Botham takes in his family is reflected in My Sporting Heroes, one of whom is Liam. The book's subtitle is "His 50 Greatest From Britain and Ireland" and it is safe to assume that Liam Botham, admirably versatile sportsman though he was, wouldn't be on anyone else's list of the 50 greatest, but then one of the privileges of being Sir Ian Botham at 54 is that you can pretty much make up your own rules as you go along.

Restricting the list to 50, though, wasn't easy, even with the condition that he had to have watched them perform, which ruled out the stars of the 1930s and 1940s. "At one stage we had 178, and then we had to start the cull." So who fell by the wayside? "Oh, you'll never know that." A chuckle, and a glug of Chardonnay. "Some are obvious, a couple might surprise people. Andy Murray, for instance, is a sporting hero of mine. Two years ago if you put a mic in front of him he went to jelly, but since then he's developed in mind as well as body, and there's no doubt that he will win Grand Slams. I admire mental fortitude. Sir Alex Ferguson, for instance. He sits in that office and can see every nook and cranny of the [Carrington] training ground. They don't dare shirk, and what greater example of his leadership than Ryan Giggs, who's also in the book, still brilliant at 36?"

Manchester United past and present is indeed well represented, with Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, David Beckham and Bryan Robson also in there. Yet wasn't he a Chelsea fan as a boy? "Yes," he says, wistfully, "in the days of Peter Osgood, Ian Hutchinson, 'Chopper' Harris ..."

So why no Chelsea players in the book? "Well, there were two or three on the original list but these other boys have been on the stage for so long. Paul Gascoigne's in there too. Have England produced a more skilful player? Not in my lifetime of watching sport."

I venture some surprise that Kevin Keegan didn't make it, either. After all, Keegan started his career at Scunthorpe United, for whom Botham himself made 11 league appearances. "Yes, he might be in the next one. Although the book I'd like to do next is the 50 greatest in my time in the world." Who would make his world top 10? "That might surprise you. Franz Klammer would be in there. Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Johan Cruyff, Sean Fitzpatrick..."

What about his great mate Viv Richards? "Of course, but I'm not really thinking about cricket. Maybe only two cricketers would get into my world top 50, Viv and Shane Warne. Though I'd have to consider [Sachin] Tendulkar and [Brian] Lara." No room for Imran Khan then, I venture, provocatively, Botham having unsuccessfully sued the former Pakistani captain, in 1996, for accusing him of ball-tampering.

"No, he wouldn't get close. Wasn't good enough. It's not a personal thing. He just wasn't good enough."

Fair enough, but if personal enmities wouldn't keep anyone off his list, it's reasonable to assume that personal friendships have nudged a few people on to it. In short, and emboldened by the Chardonnay, I suggest that some of those he has included in the book are in there simply because they're mates. "Like who?" he growls. "Like Sam Torrance. A great bloke and all that, but it's not like he won majors..."

"But he's still a sporting hero of mine. He's the best Ryder Cup captain we've ever had."

Rubbish, I say. Or rather, think. Europe's best Ryder Cup captain was Tony Jacklin, surely?

"Well, Jacklin's in there too, but Sam ... the team he captained responded better than any other Ryder Cup team, and I was quite close to that team, because he involved me. His man-management skills were second to none, which they have to be when you've got 12 individuals not conditioned to playing in teams. It was the same with Woosie [Ian Woosnam]. Everyone wrote him off as a captain, said he didn't have the elocution and so on, but he proved them all wrong."

Botham's own record as a captain, albeit in a more challenging arena, is the one area of frailty in his remarkable record as a cricketer. And he concedes that man-management wasn't one of his strengths.

"I could never understand how you were supposed to walk out there with 10 other guys, patting one on the back telling him he was the best thing since sliced bread, and giving another one a kick up the backside."

But isn't that precisely what Mike Brearley, one of the most astute England captains, did? Wasn't he essentially a psychologist?

"Not a sports psychologist, though," says Botham, practically spitting out the contemptible words. "Sports psychology is the biggest load of bullshit that's ever been invented."

But that's splitting hairs, isn't it? You can't praise Sam Torrance for his man-management skills, and then dismiss the relevance of psychology in sport. Actually, you can if you're Botham.

"I don't think Brearley played mind games with me," he says. "He gave me my head, he let me go, he let me be a free spirit." He taps the book. "A lot of guys in here are free spirits."

And a lot of them have sought the help of sports psychologists. It might have no validity for Botham, I say, but that doesn't make it worthless. A grimace. "It's rubbish. I know golfers use them, but only because they're bored and lonely on the tour. A sports psychologist is nothing more than a confidant, a mate. People say, 'What about the pressure in sport?' Pressure? Pressure makes kettles whistle. Pressure is being on the front line in Afghanistan. Don't give me sporting pressure. I've never bought into it. If you want to be the best you can't worry about pressure."

We've meandered away from his 50 greatest. There are no snooker players in the book, no darts players. "No. Steve Davis and Alex Higgins were considered, and I can see it's a very skilful sport, but does anyone watch it any more? They're not guys I regard as sporting heroes. And darts? Erm, no." And what, finally, are the sports he has never tried himself? Has he ever had a proper go at boxing? "Not officially, no. Actually, I find it amazing how they control themselves. I'd get whacked, and think 'right'..."

Sir Ian Botham half-rises from the table, fists clenched. He's joking, but it's a disconcerting sight, all the same.

My Sporting Heroes, by Sir Ian Botham, is published by Mainstream, £18.99