Botham bides his time in Illy season

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The Independent Online
WHEN the singer-songwriter Roy Harper wrote the mellifluent "When an old cricketer leaves the crease", the nostalgic lyrics would certainly not have been referring to Ian Botham. With its heart-tugging brass refrain courtesy of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Harper's old cricketers were the idealised ghosts of his heroes Geoff (Boycott) and John (Snow) - "with a new-ball sting in his tail" - not an icon of the masses now seemingly keen to curry favour with the cricketing establishment he so gleefully antagonised throughout his playing career.

Botham is in South Africa commentating for Sky television on the present Test series against England. For someone who would either grow restless or fall asleep in a dressing-room the moment he wasn't involved in the action, you would think that watching from the sidelines would bore and frustrate him even more. The man dubbed Beefy or Gorilla during his playing days, claims not. "It's a different kind of watching now. There's no anxiety about waiting to bat or bowl, so I enjoy it."

Botham is a natural at most things he turns his mind to, but some critics felt his offerings last summer were too bland for such a colourful personality. However, those remembering the vitriol he poured on those ex-players turned commentators who dared to criticise him during his career know his dislike for hypocrisy. Changeling he may be, but he is determined not to turn into a Freddie Trueman figure, forever frothing and fuming about today's players with yesterday's perfect eyesight.

"What I hope to try to do as a commentator is to give the viewer an idea of how things are unfolding in the middle from a player's point of view and what they might be thinking. It's so easy to be destructive, so I'd like to think that any criticism that I do make will be on the constructive side."

It is a sentiment that didn't seem to include the England supremo Raymond Illingworth, who he criticised after his public tiffs with Michael Atherton. Having already stated an interest in Illingworth's job, Botham was seen as indulging in nothing more than flagrant self- promotion. In fact he is still interested in doing the job though his views on Illingworth have ameliorated along with his own dress sense and sensible haircut.

"Putting one man in charge of the England set-up is definitely going the right way," he said. "I hope the team win here and in the World Cup and that they give Raymond a big pat on the back, extend his contract and pay him a proper wage. But it should be more like a football manager's job and if things don't go well there shouldn't be anywhere to hide when the finger gets pointed. In any case I'm happy to bide my time for a few years."

So what did he think of proceedings so far? " Well, South Africa made a mistake picking five seamers. But I've been impressed by young Shaun Pollock who bowled with aggression. He's got a good action and a well- disguised bouncer and slower ball. He could be something special because he can bat as well."

To do the England job well, Botham, who has a common appeal, would need to find the common touch, a difficult task for a player who resolutely kept his own agenda. "The most important things at Test level are in the head rather than in technique," he explained. "The key is to get the best out of players when it counts, to make sure they're relaxed, and that is down to psychology and kidology."

As the most admired cricketer of his and indeed the present generation (even the admirably self-possessed Dominic Cork keeps a picture of him on his mantelpiece at home), Botham would automatically have a captive audience not automatically guaranteed to the likes of Illingworth and his coaches, John Edrich and Peter Lever, able fellows that they are.

His motivation is, he claims, purely the desire to "put something back before I've forgotten everything that I know". It is clearly a sentiment shared by the chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board, Dennis Silk, who managed to get Botham to sit on the MCC's Rules Committee, despite the misgivings of those within HQ who saw England's greatest all-rounder as no more than "a talented thug".

Now a tax exile in Alderney, largely on the back of the phenomenal success of his autobiography (it has shifted over 500,000 copies so far), he leads an increasingly hectic life. Before jetting to South Africa he'd been filming a Nike commercial in Nepal during a gruelling 100km ultra marathon. Botham walked half the course, which rises to 10,000 feet above sea level, losing 20lb in weight. Incredibly, the winner took just under 12 hours.

Apart from directing his restless energies towards roadshows and book signings, he continues to devote time and effort to leukaemia research, and plans another John O'Groats to Land's End walk in a year's time. When not travelling, he enjoys playing golf (off a steady five handicap) with his good friend Ian Woosnam or catching up with his family who live for the most part in North Yorkshire.

It is a busy time for the man who puts "Retired Country Gent" on forms that require him to state his occupation. It is a typically Bothamesque flourish and one that suits him at present. But deep down there is a yearning to return to the game he once set ablaze and to change his status some time in the near future from that of old cricketer to that of England cricket manager.