Cricket: A walking, talking, giving soul: Martin Johnson tracks the indomitable showman, Ian Botham, a rebel with a cause

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AS HIS latest fund-raising caravan snakes its way along the south coast of England, the cricketer who was never far away from a blistering feat is currently dealing more in blistering feet. 'Pain is fun,' he bellows to his entourage when the going gets rough, and again during the nightly ritual of peeling off the socks to survey the damage to two raw appendages bearing an uncanny resemblance to something you last saw on offer in a butcher's window at pounds 3.50 a pound.

For Ian Botham, the approach of middle age is just another opponent to be dismissed with a contemptuous snort, and a 37-year-old body that in motoring terms has been round the clock about a dozen times will shortly complete a seven- year total of 2,600 miles, at the equivalent of pounds 1,000 per mile, in the cause of leukaemia research.

Botham is now about two-thirds of the way through walk No 6, a 546-mile slog from Land's End to Margate, and, in keeping with modern Test match trends, there is no rest day. This is partly through fear of not being able to crank up his body again, but mostly because the words Botham and rest have never belonged in the same sentence.

One of his knees is giving him serious gyp, he has agonising shin soreness, and blisters on his blisters. And yet, as one or two journalists who joined him this week for a 23-mile leg between Yarmouth and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight found out to their cost, he only has the one gear. As with his cricket, and what are laughingly referred to as his periods of recreation, he goes at it flat out.

Over dinner in Ventnor he rose to what remains of his feet for his nightly speech, and logged, with obvious delight, the piteous state of those of us who have had the temerity to suggest that his cricketing life has now entered the autumnal stage. 'Don't any of you sods call me too old again,' he chortled, before levying fines for the collection bucket on those walkers who had not covered themselves in glory. Given that failure to match Botham's tequila intake on the road qualifies as an fineable offence, this is lucrative exercise.

All the hacks made it to the finishing line, although thanks largely to the landlord of the White Horse Inn at Whitwell turning out to be a modern-day Florence Nightingale, your correspondent, already tailed off, trailed in an hour and a half off the pace.

This, however, was a better effort than that of one of our number, who managed the not inconsiderable feat of landing up in hospital the night before the walk as opposed to the night after it. A Botham walk is not renowned for lack of hospitality, and in a brave attempt to locate his room at about four o'clock in the morning, our man plunged his arm through a plate glass window and was still in the local infirmary when the starting gun went off.

Among the cricketers taking part on Wednesday's leg were Angus Fraser, Stuart Lampitt, Graeme Hick, and Mike Gatting. Gatting was driven back to the ferry terminal before lunch-time, and although there was the obvious suspicion that cricket's greatest trencherman misses his lunch for no one, he was in fact due at Lilleshall for an England winter tour medical. Gatting, in fact, had walked the 31-mile leg the previous day, and down the years has been one of Botham's most supportive walkers. So much so, that he once ended up in hospital in Ireland.

For the uninitiated, it came as a surprise to discover quite how 23 miles of walking could cause such pain. Less of a surprise was the warmth of the reception en route. At times, with flags being waved by people who spanned the age spectrum from pushchair to zimmer frame, you had some idea of how it must have felt when the Allies liberated Paris.

On the other hand, there were long periods of boredom on what, outside the tourist season, is a pretty quiet part of the world. Passing through one village, the noticeboard advertising the following day's WI meeting informed us that Mr Marshall would be addressing the women on the subject of the Isle of Wight coastline, so it is clearly far too racy a place for the likes of Botham.

Botham's involvement with leukaemia began when he was with Somerset, visiting the hospital that specialised in treating sporting injuries. On passing through one of the children's wards, he noticed that many of them were hairless through chemotherapy treatment. The doctor informed him that many of them would not be alive when Botham visited next.

An impulsively generous man, Botham said that he would pay for a party for any of the children confined to hospital on their birthday, and he discussed the idea of a fund-raising walk with his wife, Kath. She suggested a trip across the Pennines, but Botham being Botham, he decided to go the whole hog with John O'Groats to Land's End.

Since then, he has trebled that distance of 925 miles, including a haul across the Alps from Perpignan to Turin, and before this walk, which is already past the pounds 100,000 mark, he had raised more than pounds 2.5m for leukaemia research.

After finishing the walk in Margate next Friday, Botham will have a couple of weeks off before beginning a 35-night chat show/question-and-answer forum with Viv Richards, opening in Preston on 1 November, and moving on for a five-week stint in Australia in mid-February. Perhaps Australia, where rumour has it that they have never seen a batsman walk, will be the venue for his next great trek. - Donations can be made to the Leukaemia Research Fund, 43 Great Ormond Street, London, WC1, or by phone on 071-405-0101.

(Photograph omitted)