As British sport looks back on 2007, one man has more reason than any other to heave a deep sigh of contentment, perhaps with an accompanying glug of a good Puligny Montrachet. This was the year in which Sir Ian Botham was knighted, and nothing in his eventful life could match the surge of pride he felt as the royal sword descended on his shoulders.
"I've had some great highs, but that, in all honesty, was the biggest moment of my life," he tells me, in the lounge of a bijou hotel in Bath, during a tour to promote his autobiography. "To have my two grandsons there watching..." He is fleetingly lost for words.
"We'd been sworn to secrecy," he continues. "We daren't tell the kids, and I couldn't tell my mother, because all she needed was half a glass of shampoo and the whole world would know. My only regret is that my father died two years ago and wasn't around to witness it..." Once again, words fail the great man.
I ask him about his fellow honourees at the Palace that day. "Oh, Barry Humphries, a headmaster from Guyana in a wheelchair, nuclear scientists, teachers, firemen... I almost got it wrong right at the end. You stand by a rear admiral, and as soon as you hear your name you walk forward, kneel, the Queen knights you, you get up, and bow, so she can put the chain round your neck. Then she shakes your hand, and you bow again, but I half-turned before I bowed."
It wasn't like Botham to get the script wrong; he's been re-writing them most of his life. And what a story it is, I venture, that he and his dear old mucker Viv Richards, neither of themexactly darlings of the establishment, are both now knights of the realm. "Yeah... Viv came up to the house after it had been announced and we had a little party. He made an impromptu speech, which isn't really like him, but he said we should think back to when we started at Somerset, living in a condemned house next to the ground with no running water. Who'd ever have thought that those two guys would end up as they are?"
How it all came to pass is the subject of Botham: Head On, which was ghost-written, but not, at his insistence, by a sports writer. "A cricket writer would have had his own ideas about what happened. I didn't want that. So a guy called Neil Hanson did it, a historical writer. He did the true facts of the Great Fire of London." A chuckle. "I got to page five on that. No, he did a great job, although there were some words with 15 syllables and I didn't have a clue what they meant, so they had to come out."
Botham likes to present himself as one of life's artisans; one of the more effective tools in the box but not the sharpest. In the book he says that at school he was nicknamed "Bungalow", meaning nothing upstairs. But the truth, I think, is that he is much shrewder than he lets on. "Everyone has their own idea of what Ian Botham is or isn't," he says, as if reading my mind. "But very few have actually met me. I wanted this book to be a walk through my life. And it's warts and all."
He's not wrong about that. He spends several pages ridiculing various allegations of extramarital relationships, but then rather abruptly admits to an affair of almost two years with an Australian waitress, as a result of which his daughter Sarah refused to speak to him for "a long time," which must have been dreadfully painful for them both. He also addresses one or two of the higher-profile enmities of his life, notably those with his old Aussie adversary Ian Chappell, and with his former Somerset team-mate Peter Roebuck. "I can't pretend it didn't happen," he says. "But the Ian Chappell thing I hardly give a mention to. It's so insignificant to me, and he's twisted and warped it for his own purposes. Roebuck is just a sad, sad person. But you know, something Seve Ballesteros said years ago stuck in my head. If you take the negative stuff out of the mix, it might unbalance the whole thing."
Maybe that philosophy also applies to Englishness, I suggest. Botham is a fierce patriot, and yet there are aspects of our collective psyche that mystify him. He does not, for example, understand why Nick Faldo hasn't received the tap of cold steel. "It's very, very strange. Nick won six majors, just like Nigel Mansell was a world champion, and they got stick for being unsociable or boring or whatever, while we made a hero out of Eddie the Eagle. The Australians laugh at us. They say 'what's wrong with you? You get a champion and you knock him.' You've got to value success. I took 383 Test wickets, and I'll be delighted if Monty Panesar or someone goes sailing past me."
How, though, should we define success? Success was England winning the Ashes in 2005, yet it was followed with unseemly swiftness by the whitewash in 2006-07. And the Test team has looked distinctly average in Sri Lanka. Who does Botham blame for that?
"I think that some players lived off the back of the 2005 Ashes for a while, but I don't blame just them. The establishment went over the top, the management went over the top. It was farcical in Australia last winter. The England team had security outriders, and there's Shane Warne driving the Aussies around in a minibus. I had no problems with [the England players] all enjoying themselves in Trafalgar Square, but they should have got straight back to business. Instead, central contracts were abused it's a joke that the England players play hardly any county cricket and Duncan Fletcher became power mad. He had to go, and now Peter Moores has to address the habits these boys have got into. But we can't judge him until after the next Ashes."
In his time, Botham adds, the county obligations of England cricketers were self-regulating. "Somerset were sensible with me. They rested me when it was best to do so. And I had a great mentor in Brian Close, who kept my feet on the ground. Also, relationships at county level can be the most valuable of your life. Viv and I were great for each other, and I regard him as the best player who ever played cricket. Bradman got all the records, but I wonder if Bradman could have adjusted to 20-, 40-, 50-over cricket as well as Test matches? When you look at footage from the 1930s, there's no science about the field placings. They were the same when the batsman arrived at the crease as they were when he'd scored 300. Obviously Bradman was an exceptional talent, but I find it hard to comprehend anyone ever being better than Viv."
Unsurprisingly, he also considers the West Indies under Clive Lloyd to have been the Test team par excellence. "People talk about the [1948 Australian] Invincibles. Baloney! They would have been blown away by that lot. And Clive Lloyd made them the West Indies, you know. He brought all those guys from different islands together, in a way that had never been done before, and hasn't been done properly since."
Botham's own 12-Test record as an international captain was considerably less impressive (eight draws and four defeats) but it still rankles that he is perceived as a failure. "I would have come good. That [1980-81] season for Somerset I averaged nearly 100. I was in good form. But there were a few senior players who resented a 24-year-old captain, and I didn't realise that some guys needed to be told how good they were. I still don't understand that. Sports psychology, what's that all about? It's the biggest con of all time, people making a lot of money talking bullshit. In Australia, a sports psychologist came to me and said he was writing a book, could he ask me a few questions? I said: 'what's your field?' 'Cricket,' he said. 'Oh, how many Tests did you play?' 'Erm, I never played first-class cricket.' 'Well, piss off then... what can you tell me about walking out in front of 100,000 people?'"
I laugh dutifully, but suggest, rather bravely, that maybe Botham has just nailed his own failings as a captain: an inability to understand the needs of others. Just because he never needed psychological guidance as a sportsman, doesn't mean that some might. After all, he never liked net practice either. But for some it's vital. "Yes, there is that case, but why play professional sport if you're not sure of your talent? Be a car salesman."
I persevere. Wasn't Mike Brearley, his captain in the extraordinary 1981 Ashes campaign, essentially a psychologist? "I don't think Mike Brearley made Bob [Willis] take 8 for 43," he says, shortly.
Changing the subject to something with a frothily end-of-year feel, I ask him to indulge me by answering a short, impromptu questionnaire. If he were condemned to play only three golf courses for the rest of time, what would they be? "Portmarnock, Doonbeg and Waterville, all in Ireland," he says. And to drink only three wines? "Vega-Sicilia from Spain, Puligny Montrachet, and Jordan Nine Yards from South Africa." And to fish only three rivers? "The Tweed, the Spey and the Tyne." And finally, if he could watch again and again the deeds of only three cricketers? "Viv Richards, Shane Warne, and D K Lillee." Some of us might find room in our fantasy trio for I T Botham.
Botham: Head On The Autobiography is published by Ebury, priced 18.99Reuse content