BOOK OF THE WEEK: Beefy's hot recipe for getting out of a stew

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The Independent Online
The Botham Report: What is wrong with English cricket and how I intend to put it right

Ian Botham with Peter Hayter (Collins Willow, paperback, pounds 16.99)

The latest offering from the team who produced the UK's biggest- selling sports book of all time, namely Ian Botham's autobiography, may have done itself a disservice with the chosen title. There is a Botham Report, but the value of this book for cricket lovers is the fascinating insider's story of English cricket over the past 10 years.

True to form, Botham does not shy away from attaching his name to forthright criticism of those he deplores, Raymond Illingworth in particular. His attacks on the erstwhile chairman of selectors are so frequent and so virulent that Botham must have been tempted to dedicate the work to his tabloid sparring partner. Other targets include Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher, although Botham has at least made attempts to ensure they remain on speaking terms.

All the issues are there: from ball-tampering to dirt-in-the-pocket, England's exclusion of David Gower, Devon Malcolm's treatment in South Africa, the disastrous World Cup right up to the end of the 1997 season.

But of more lasting interest will be how a well-written book (notwithstanding an abnormal number of typographical errors) confronts some of the most fundamental problems in the English game. The tale of Philip Neville is particularly resonant. While many sports fans may be aware that both Philip and his brother Gary Neville, the Manchester United full-backs, are also accomplished cricketers, not many outside Lancashire will know just how good Philip Neville was.

The highest-ever score by a Lancashire schoolboy had been John Crawley's 167, until Neville made 193 not out in 44 overs against Nottinghamshire. "Phil had the whole range of shots, was equally good in defence or attack and always appeared to have loads of time," said one witness.

Sounds like just the sort of player England have been crying out for, and now we know where he is. The financial chasm between cricket and football has recently grown so wide that our best cricketers are just not choosing cricket. In Australia, they do not have such a choice.

And it is not just football, as Liam Botham's decision to play rugby union rather than his first love, cricket, testifies. His father makes plain that he saw no viable alternative for his son from a financial point of view.

Botham's survey of administrators and players, and his own solutions to the problem, which boils down to how to beat Australia, is laudable enough. But its timing is curious. If the survey was carried out at the beginning of the season, why did he not get into print before the counties decided to reject the notion of change? Perhaps Botham could have had some influence and prevented what now looks like another four years of stagnation before the Australians return to precipitate the next crisis. As it is, Beefy will just have to content himself with the profits from an entertaining book.