He was 25, exuberant, extravagant, extrovert, powerful in person and physique. He had been Mike Brearley's nomination to succeed as captain and had taken England to the West Indies, losing the series 2-0 to what Wisden said 'was not a great West Indies' side, although it contained Richards, Lloyd, Haynes, Greenidge, Roberts, Holding and Garner. England had Boycott, Gooch, Gower, Botham, Gatting and Emburey.
Botham's leadership was thus under pressure before the Australians, under Kim Hughes, arrived. When the first Test was lost, on a seaming pitch at Trent Bridge, by the afternoon of the fourth day, the first Test cricket on a Sunday, the barrage mounted. England put down six catches, Paul Downton's career was ended, but the captain, at slip, was equally culpable. The second Test, marred by rain and bad light and played on a pitch of varying bounce, was drawn. Botham was not a captain to be hunted down and cornered; while the media waited for the selectors to sack him, he resigned.
Brearley was recalled to lead what was now thought to be a losing if not lost cause. His first words were 'I need Botham', but England went to Headingley uncertain and dispirited. Despite Botham's 6 for 95, Australia scored 401 for 9 declared, an innings played between bad light and rain.
By the end of the third day, England had been dismissed for 174 and, following on, had lost Gooch in another day curtailed by the weather. Ladbroke's offered 500-1 against an English victory. On the Monday, Boycott dug in for 210 minutes but the Australian advance was irresistible and at 135 for 7, still 92 behind, England checked out of their hotel.
By then Graham Dilley had joined Botham, and the fast bowler, with nothing to lose, began using his big swing, hitting the ball cleanly, picking up the tempo. Botham, as if challenged, responded and an Australian victory that night was postponed as the pair added 117 in 80 minutes. Hughes afterwards was assailed for not setting a field and bowling tight, but his replay was logical enough: 'We needed only three balls.'
With Chris Old weighing in, England were 124 ahead overnight with the last man, Bob Willis, at the crease. Botham was 149 not out on a sunny Tuesday morning when England's innings ended on a total of 356, leaving Australia a target of 130 to win. Brearley, in the dressing-room, reminded him of a pre-match conversation; the captain commiserated with Botham on the harrassment he had taken from the press, adding, 'you will probably score a century and take 12 wickets'. Brearley pointed out that Botham owed him another six wickets.
With Australia at 56 for the loss of Graeme Wood, the match seemed over. A request came from the dressing-room for a celebratory case of champagne and the late Joe Lister, Yorkshire's secretary, asked his secretary to order one from a local wine shop.
The girl dutifully arrived, a little later, to be asked by the manager: 'Are you sure this is for the Aussies? You know they are 68 for 6?' The secretary, unfazed, replied, 'Well, someone will drink it.' England did.
Willis, changing ends, might have been a fast bowler driven by demons, taking 8 for 43 as the last nine Australian wickets went for 55, and for the first time this century a team had won a Test match after following on. It was probably the most astonishing day in Test history yet the rancour with the press lingered, both Botham and Willis refusing to talk afterwards. Three or four Aussies, it was said, had slipped off to the bookies to collect their winnings.
The miracles did not end in Leeds. In the fourth Test, at Edgbaston, Australia needed only another 46 to win, with six wickets standing. Brearley had signalled to Peter Willey to loosen up, planning an all-spin attack with John Emburey, when Allan Border was caught, unluckily, off a ball from Emburey that suddenly reared.
Brearley changed his mind and called up a clearly reluctant Botham, who, said Wisden, 'bowled quicker than for some time, was straight and pitched the ball up and one after another five Australian batsmen walked on to the point of the lance'.
England thus took a 2-1 lead to the fifth Test at Old Trafford. Could Botham do it again? Indeed, he could.
Chris Tavare's 69, in 289 minutes, buttressed England's first-day 175 for 9. Paul Allott, making 52 on debut as England's last man, cheered the second morning, before Australia, after a failed attempt to hammer Willis, collapsed to 130 all out. The euphoria was brief: by Saturday afternoon, with 20,000 in the ground, Alderman and Lillee had reduced England to 104 for 5, a lead of 205.
An enormous roar greeted Botham, on joining the dogged Tavare. The Hero was deliberate and mostly defensive for 70 minutes, taking 53 balls to score his first 28. Hughes than gave Lillee and Alderman the new ball.
What happened next could have been scripted by Stallone for Schwarzenegger. Botham hooked Lillee three times for six. He pulled Alderman wide of the pavilion, swept a fifth six and his sixth (a record for an Ashes innings) was a massive straight blow. He went from 28 to 100 in 33 balls, gave two difficult high chances and added 13 fours. Australia appeared as if the floor and roof had given way simultaneously.
England won by 103 and retained the Ashes.
When MCC worried over the wording for an inscription on the Grace Gates at Lord's, it was Sir Stanley Jackson who offered 'The Great Cricketer'. One day a similar tribute, to Botham, may be fashioned at Taunton or Worcester or Chester-le-Street. Why not all three? In much of what he did, on and off the field, he was excessive, but Regency England would have recognised him instantly as the man who could ride to hounds from dawn, fight 25 rounds bare-knuckle of an afternoon, dine on a mountain of boiled mutton, roast beef plum duff and cheddar cheese, washed down by ale and claret, and top it off with a bottle of brandy: a man who proclaimed one Englishman worth 10 scurvy foreigners. For Ian Botham read John Bull.Reuse content