Cricket / Botham's Retirement: Botham's legend passes quietly into history: Jon Culley reflects on the motivations and impulses of the record-breaking ultimate competitor at a rainy Durham University

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IN THE end, the career of Ian Terence Botham passed into history amid watery evening sunshine and applause that was scarcely above polite on the register by which we measure such things. A couple of thousand spectators did their best to provide an appropriate farewell but it was a long way from the fire and colour and rapture of his brilliant career.

At least there was the chance for a last goodbye. In the morning, as umbrellas dripped around the Durham University ground and Botham delivered his parting confessions, cricket had seemed an unlikely prospect. 'I've spent most of my life wishing for rain,' Botham said, 'so perhaps this is quite appropriate.'

It was a joke, of course. The gladiatorial entrance, the menace in the bat-whirling advance on the wicket that heralded his every innings conveyed nothing but desire for battle. Lately, however, things have changed and sometimes the sight of ground staff pegging down the covers seems to have been not entirely unwelcome.

It seems to be every cricketer's conviction that he will quit at the moment he feels that the enjoyment has gone. Some do not make it that far. Others continue too long beyond it and perhaps Botham falls into the second category, although he maintains that the realisation only recently dawned.

'One morning last week it took me five minutes to get out of bed,' he said. 'I thought 'I don't need this any more'.' Thus the point of departure had been reached. By happy coincidence, the Australians were in town to hear the news but there was more, he said, to the timing than simply a final squaring-up to the old enemy.

'The idea was that with Liam just starting (Botham Jnr is making his debut for Hampshire seconds this week) it would be a good idea to disappear now.' Cute? Yes, but then the valedictory address was no spontaneous affair: scripted and rehearsed, the best bits retained for a forthcoming book.

Those pages, presumably, will elaborate on all the deeds, on and away from the cricket field, about which, in yesterday's words, he has no regrets. 'I would not change anything,' he said, quite content that every excess in which he unapologetically indulged was merely a reflection of his personal philosophy. 'I once saw an advert in Australia that showed a guy in a deckchair wearing a string vest and drinking beer. The caption read 'Life - be in it'. I can identify with that. Life is not a dress- rehearsal.'

If this is the side to his character that has tarnished his image as an English hero, it only endeared him to the Australians, who soon grew to respect him for more than his achievements with bat or ball.

'He is the ultimate competitor but (he) always had you round for a beer or barbecue after the game,' Allan Border, the Australian captain, said at Durham. 'He could be so competitive but regardless of what had happened on the field he would be the first in your dressing-room afterwards. Not many people can do that, myself included, if you had had a bad day.'

Only Botham, in Border's view, could have won the Headingley Test in 1981, from which he is the only Australian participant still playing. 'Not Viv Richards, nor Greg Chappell could have done that. That was Ian Botham at his best. He never believed that there was a situation that he could not turn round personally.'

He would enjoy such words, for the respect is mutual. Asked which opponent he most admired, Botham replied: 'Any Australian. The nature of the beast (the Australian male) is such that you could take 11 guys off Bondi Beach and put them on a plane to England and they would give you a good game. That's why I enjoy playing them so much.'

The weather relented for time enough in mid-afternoon yesterday for what spectators had sat fast through a morning's rain to be rewarded with: their last look. Botham still has an aura, folk still gather near a pavilion if they know he is inside. But the Botham of today bears scant resemblance to The Legend. You could almost hear the limbs creaking as he delivered his final 11 overs in the first-class game. He struggled to turn his body round, let alone anything else, as David Boon moved towards his seventh century of the tour and Matthew Hayden his second during the contest's two-and-a-half hour passage towards an inevitable draw.

'The last couple of years have been tough,' he admitted. 'I've had about 10 operations. I'm like a battered Ford Escort. You might find one panel that's original. I will miss some things about cricket, like dressing- room humour and comradeship, but when I am sitting in a fishing boat pulling out salmon I will not miss bowling 20 overs into the wind.'

This was Botham, the realist, talking, but he deludes himself when he says he could still play for England. If Ted Dexter's committee deserve applause for anything this summer it is for dismissing any notion of a recall: folklore has been betrayed enough by the passage of time without such nonsense.

Leading the players off at stumps, Botham acknowledged the reception with theatrical bows, but the cricketer we should remember has nothing to do with pantomimes or travelling shows. And, thank goodness, with videotape to preserve the truth, this is one great sporting story which can live on, unembellished and unadulterated.

County reports, Scoreboard, page 31

(Photograph omitted)

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