The two most famous cricketers of the age, Ian Botham and Viv Richards, are playing out their last rites this weekend at a place which recently stood under three feet of water. While Lord's hosts one of the classic sporting events - a Test between England and Australia - Botham and Richards meet for probably the last time in the anonymous north Wales resort of Colwyn Bay, where at a venue of campsites, council houses and blue rinses in teashops that is more in keeping with a season of the Grumbleweeds than a clash of Titans, Glamorgan and Durham are threequarters of the way through a county championship match.
Their encounters these days are not so much cut and thrust as cat and mouse. Botham lopes up to the wicket where he used to spring, bowling gentle seamers, though he is still capable of a vigorous bouncer when riled. Richards, now 41 and more circumspect than he once was, sizes up the bowlers quietly, almost like a grandfather surveying mischievous children. In the field their catching is still sharp but their mobility somewhat reduced by 20 years of stress and soirees, though Richards still runs people out with direct hits.
Let's just contemplate their achievements in two decades on the field. Never mind the 383 Test wickets; Botham has 14 Test centuries. Fourteen. Batting at No 6. That is phenomenal in anyone's book. One year he hit 80 sixes in the season (14 more than the next best). He has taken five wickets in an innings 60 times. Richards has made 112 first-class centuries, averaged 50 in 121 Tests and never lost a series as captain of the West Indies. He once scored a triple century in a day at Taunton. Remember that classic 189 not out in a one-day international at Old Trafford? How could you forget it?
They wear these accomplishments with a pride and confidence that remain undiminished. Still Botham believes he can take wickets with long hops, and does so - David Gower obliged only last month. Still Richards will accept the challenge to hook helmetless, or loft shots over deep-set fields. Neither practises much, which irritates colleagues if they fail, inspires them if they flourish. Both are prone to mood swings, but are always stimulating company in a dressing-room. There is an aura around them which no one else in the game commands.
Bowling to Richards in his pomp was no fun. An imposing physical presence taking guard, he had a penchant for the legside and would whip good, probing out-swingers through midwicket until his eye was in. The self-satisfied wink and almost exaggerated block to the next, identical delivery were little consolation. On the back foot he rode the ball magnificently on top of the bounce, cut savagely or picked up balls nonchantly off his hip, all the while chewing and slapping the top of his bat-handle menacingly.
Not wearing a helmet is part of the bravado. He was felled once, hit on the head first ball by a rampaging Rodney Hogg at Melbourne. He got up, dusted himself down, brazenly rejecting a glass of water. Hogg flew in and unleashed another bouncer, which Richards hooked 10 rows back into the stand over square leg. Even the bowler applauded. Richards' whole game is built on self-belief. 'If I was facing Shane Warne, I would want to assert myself early, work out some shots, try to dent his confidence,' he says. 'Most of the England players look nervous and inhibited.'
He underlined this on Thursday by ambling in at 150 for 3 and immediately striking the rookie Durham paceman John Wood for three fours in an over, two drives and an imperious pull which said - 'Hey, sonny, don't bowl there to me.' The smattering of spectators laid down the transistors carrying news of England's plight and paid attention. But the children in a nearby playground continued their games, oblivious to the pedigree on show.
Even on a wicket as anaemic as this, Richards' timing is exquisite. Botham comes on to bowl - slow, teasing seamers, Richards into position too early. 'Hey man, I've seen this all before,' he says. 'I'm just gonna be takin' singles,' and dabs a wide ball tentatively to third man. 'Yeah, and if you get out my end I'll dance round you all the way back to the pavilion,' says Botham.
Two overs later the West Indian lifted Graveney gloriously straight over the road into the 1940s semis, some of whose roofs had slates missing. 'That's Viv's handiwork last year,' a passer-by pointed out. The tarpaulin-for-a-sight
screen rippled in a sudden gust, and the tea ladies looked up from their display of custard pies.
And then it was all over. An airy drive, an inside edge: I V A Richards, bowled Berry for 34. People in the bar groaned in unison and went back to their pints. Elderly men on the bank began buttoning up their cardigan again. Richards sloped off like a cat that is barely awake.
Despite looking the less likely of the two to thrive this particular day, Botham took the bulk of the last few wickets, finishing with 4 for 11 from six overs. Batsmen were terrified to play a shot at him. He marches in, straps on the pads as makeshift opener, and selects a railway sleeper from the collection in his bag. 'I should put in for a pay rise,' he says. 'What's the Test score?' 'Australia 240 for 1.' He guffaws, mumbles something not very complimentary about the selectors and strides out. Richards, stood at slip, calls out, 'Come on boys, we're down to the tail already.'
Fired up, Botham is still a considerable bonus to a team, capable of destroying the bowling and trapping wickets. Just occasionally, when there is nothing in the game and his focus is on the golf tee, he is rightly infuriating with more escape clauses than a phoney insurance company. But these excuses (he complained of the glare off a plastic cover after missing a slip catch on Thursday) are an asset rather than a weakness. So defiant is his self-esteem that he refuses to believe that anyone could possibly outmanoeuvre him. It is a common feature of great sportsmen that they never admit they are at fault. This is the root of their success.
Despite his achievements, deep down Botham still covets the applause, the compliments - from colleagues and opponents as well as spectators. He bats more cautiously than he used to, knowing that to get out is a brutal sentence. Once back in the pavilion he is a prisoner there, unable to venture out because he will immediately be harassed as a star-struck public quizzes and stares. Instead he snoozes, shuffles papers, thinks up silly nicknames.
He is inundated with letters, invitations and requests for what has become the world's most illegible autograph. And you have to like him. For his humour, his generosity, and above all his loyalty. Whether he is playing cricket for England or a golf match for Darlington, he spurs on his team-mates to pull their weight, to win. 'Anyone I see not trying will feel the force of my boot up their backside,' he will say.
England could do with some of Botham's explosiveness, people were muttering at Lord's on Friday. Give us a long hop, a slower ball, anything but this guileless diet of line and length. What we need is a spark. 'I liken it to Manchester United and George Best,' Richards said. 'With him they were something special, without him they aren't' (Until this year anyway).
There is something you can't refute - Botham has a remarkable knack of taking wickets, each one celebrated with that bell-pull pistoning of his arms. Those 1,400 wickets can't have all been flukes. Won't he miss it all? 'Cricket costs me money now,' he says, eyeing a glossy book on the Volvo PGA tour on which he will appear next year in pro-ams and hospitality marquees. His revamped body could certainly do with a release from the county treadmill. 'Just think,' he says. 'I could be at Gleneagies or Troon today, or chasing salmon up the Tay.'
Richards is less sure. 'Man, I just love the game. Maybe I can play in the veterans (over-35's) World Cup. That should be good.' Apart from an obstinate nasal passage which he clears fluently with a loud snort, he is in fine fettle. The eyes sharp, the nose proud, the midriff slim. The Glamorgan players are fulsome on his contribution, particularly his motivation in the field. He is superb at barking instruction. 'Come on boys, donledemoffdehook,' he'll say when heads are dropping. 'I might get some school of excellence going in Antigua too,' he continues. 'I'm proud of what we've done for that island. I'd like to be their tourist rep over here like Garfield is for Barbados.'
Neither man has been what you would describe as an Establishment figure, of course. 'They've never really cared for us, but that's only 5 per cent,' Richards points out. 'The other 95 per cent are the people who really count.' You only have to see the lines of enthusiastic faces and cheering children on one of Botham's walks to realise the regard in which he is held.
But while the county game and England battle on, and the Colwyn Bay festival makes its annual appearance, the sight of a big all-rounder emerging from the pavilion whirling his bat like a giant lasso, or a V-shaped West Indian bent over his own - cap cocked, eyes askew - will be just a memory. Thanks to video, at least it won't be a dream.
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