Ian Botham: 'I hope I have as much fun in the next 50 years'
On the occasion of his 50th birthday, England's greatest all-rounder reflects on the old Botham, the 'new Botham' and England's current fortunes
It is not easy to get hold of a legend on his 50th birthday, but a flurry of phone calls and text messages between England and Pakistan finally secured the ping on my mobile phone that I'd been hoping would wake me up, and, at 5.30 yesterday morning, did: it was a message from my colleague Angus Fraser to say that at 9.30, shortly before the tea interval in Faisalabad, I would be able to call Botham.
This was good news, even though my previous encounters with the great man had not been especially propitious. In the mid-1990s, shortly after he had joined Sky, who were then anxious for all the publicity they could get, he was persuaded to do an interview with me while he was off air during an England v South Africa Test match at Edgbaston.
For a cricket lover, it was not exactly a hardship to be obliged to spend 45 minutes alongside I T Botham at a Test match. Nevertheless, I was new to interviewing sporting luminaries and was more than faintly apprehensive in the company of one of the most luminous of them. There had recently been one or two stories of Botham losing his rag with journalists and I was fairly anxious that Botham's rag did not go missing in my presence. Unfortunately, it did.
A Sky press officer met me and led me to the Edgbaston commentary box, where Botham was just completing his first stint of the day. He suggested that we proceed to a couple of seats in the stand, where he could keep tabs on proceedings in the field. Throughout this exchange he kept his wraparound sunglasses on, and I gradually realised that he had no intention of removing them.
This was disconcerting, to say the least. It is curiously difficult to interview someone wearing sunglasses; without eye contact there is hardly any chance of establishing even the semblance of a rapport.
Whether he was actively trying to intimidate me, or simply not bothering to conceal his lack of enthusiasm for spending 45 minutes with an unfamiliar hack, I wasn't sure. Either way, I did feel intimidated, and tried to draw solace from the knowledge that he had had the same impact on much tougher men than me. At least he wasn't about to chase me round a car park threatening to flatten me, as he once had Ian Chappell. Not until I made the mistake of asking him about his son, Liam, anyway.
At that time, Liam Botham was on Hampshire's books, hoping for a career as a county cricketer. He subsequently became a rugby union and then a rugby league man, of course, enjoying a measure of success in both codes and happily immersing himself in sports with which nobody associated his father. As a cricketer, however, he was doomed to be compared unfavourably, and that was my dreadful mistake.
"How good a cricketer is Liam at the age of 19, compared with what you were like at the same age?" It seemed like a reasonable question. There had lately been a good deal of speculation that Liam might just have the talent to follow his old man into the England team, and it would have been journalistically irresponsible not to follow this up. But I realised immediately that I had detonated a time bomb. Botham half-turned to glare through his sunglasses at me. "It's hard enough for that lad without people like you putting more ******* pressure on him," he growled, menacingly. "How is he ever going to make his own way when prats like you keep comparing him with me?" I kept quiet. It was a wholly rhetorical question.
Botham then turned back to focus his attention on the match. I squeaked an apology, he grunted something, and the rest of the interview passed under conditions of distinct froideur. Eventually he said he needed to get back to the microphone, and half-heartedly shook my hand.
A few years later, however, I interviewed Botham again, at the Oval, and on that occasion found him in a warm and expansive mood. I reminded him of our previous meeting, and told him I had made the mistake of asking about Liam's progress as a cricketer. "Ah," he said, with a chuckle, "I expect I gave you a hard time, didn't I? I used to get pretty sensitive on that subject."
So, as I waited to get through to him yesterday, I wondered which Botham I was going to get. After all, most hellraisers have mellowed by the time they reach 50, but this is a man to whom generalisations have never applied. Moreover, the former cricketer Simon Hughes this week recalled that during Botham's last couple of years as a player there was a rota system among his colleagues at Durham, who had to take it in turns to go out with him in the evenings because the physical demands were too great for any of them individually. This was merely a recollection of times gone by until yesterday, when Botham's commentary-box colleague Paul Allott popped up on the website Cricinfo to say that among the guys at Sky, the same rota system still applies.
Anyway, as it turned out, the difficulties I had with Botham yesterday were more a result of a dodgy mobile phone signal than his pugnacity. But there were signs of that as well, especially when - my bravado surfacing on account of being on a different continent - I ventured that there was some irony in him spending his 50th birthday in the country he once slagged off as being a good place to send the mother-in-law.
"That was taken out of context," he snapped. "I was very ill the first time I toured here, and the second time I had a knee injury. It's a great place and I'd like to have played more Test cricket here."
Fair enough, and judging by the messages being held up in the crowd yesterday - "We Liking You, Mr Ian" - nobody in Faisalabad holds a grudge. I asked him another daring question; whether he might perchance advise Andrew Flintoff not to accept the England captaincy, should it be offered somewhere down the line, on the basis of his own perceived failure as England captain? In other words, is it unwise to saddle an all-rounder with too much responsibility? I loaded the question with "perhaps" and "perceived" but I fancied that it might still nettle him and I was right.
"I lost two series to the West Indies, 1-0 and 2-0," he said. "It was not 5-0 and 5-0, which happened to some I could mention. So you can interpret that any way you like. It's a catch-22. I get criticised whatever I say about it, so the best thing is to say nothing. As for Freddie, I probably wouldn't advise him to take the take the captaincy yet, but it's not on offer. Some time in the future, why not? It might possibly come his way and he should possibly take it. That's a decision for him."
If there is an equivalent these days to the "is Liam as good a cricketer as you were?" question, it is: "Is Flintoff the new Botham?" Nothing is more guaranteed to win his disdain, and I had to smile during last year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, when Gary Lineker asked him just that.
Because it was live telly, and because it was Lineker, he had to conceal his irritation. But how much does it irritate him?
"I don't take much notice of it, to be honest. Freddie's a good friend of mine and we both just laugh at it. At times I begin to wonder whether it's just a way for a lazy journalist to lose a couple of paragraphs."
Moving hurriedly on, I asked him whether, up there in his Sky eyrie, he did not sometimes hanker to be a little more involved with this England team? He was never a selector, although for a while he acted semi-officially as a selectorial "observer". This was a role which suited neither his personality nor England, at least according to Michael Vaughan's predecessor as England captain, Nasser Hussain.
Hussain paid a 50th birthday homage yesterday, but was critical, too, suggesting that Botham had been domineering in selection meetings, and had declined to countenance the outlandish possibility that he might sometimes be wrong. Also, Hussain said, he seemed to favour cricketers who played the game and lived their lives a little like he had, preferring them to the workhorses who were likely to be in bed early - and alone.
All the same, does England's greatest all-rounder (who still has more Test wickets than any other Englishman, and leads Flintoff in both batting and bowling averages) not think that his vast experience should be put to some use by the current regime?
"It would be very hard for me to be involved," he told me. "The authorities feel that being a commentator for Sky would put me in a compromising position, although I have to say that that didn't stop Allan Border [being a selector] for many years. But let them get on with it. England are a very good team and I'm amazed that some people are writing them off because of a little hiccup here in Pakistan, without giving full credit to the opposition, who have been magnificent. The selectors are doing a good enough job without any help from me."
So much for the cricket establishment. What of the social establishment? With Botham having just reached an undeniably exciting half-century, and bearing in mind the millions he has raised for Leukemia Research, maybe the new year should see him arising as Sir Ian?
A gruff chuckle crackled through the phone. "That's out of my hands," he said. "Let's cross that bridge if we come to it. I'm very content and enjoying life to the full. I don't feel any different to how I felt 20 years ago, and if I have as much fun in the next 50 years as I've had in the last 50, it will be very worthwhile."
That fun was due to begin last night, at the Royal Palm Golf Club in Karachi, and to continue today at a golf tournament in Bangalore for former Test cricketers, organised by Kapil Dev. Botham plays golf to a handicap of eight, having been as low as four, and might also be considered a single handicapper as a fly-fisherman and a wine enthusiast, on which subject, I asked him what single bottle of wine he would like most as a 50th birthday present?
At last, a question he liked. "Strewth," he said. "Maybe a '61 Lafite, or a Margaux. But it wouldn't necessarily be French. Far from it. Maybe a great Spanish or Australian wine. And maybe a '55, the year of my birth. There were some great vintages that year." So there were.
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