Robin Scott-Elliot: How Beefy used Operation BBQ to rescue English spirits

View From The Sofa: Botham: The Legend of '81, BBC 2

How best to sum up the miracle of Headingley 1981, the greatest comeback in cricket's rich history, one of the defining moments of British sport? What did it all mean? "People don't spend their lives being fascinated by clause 17 of the Social Security No 2 bill," ruminated John Major happily on the BBC's tribute to mark three decades since Ian Botham did his thing. The former PM added something else but I missed it as I was busy fascinating myself with clause 17 of the Social Security No 2 bill.

In 1992, some 11 long years after Botham's Ashes, there was a Social Security Administration Act passed during Major's premiership. That might be the one he was talking about and clause 17 includes the following under questions for the Secretary of State: "A question whether a Class 1A contribution is payable or otherwise relating to a Class 1A contribution." One of the great unanswerables, along with just how much was drunk at the Bothams' party during the rest day of the Test.

The barbecue, to give it its code name, featured levels of drunkenness said to make Andrew Flintoff's post-Ashes 2005 exploits look like a Conservative association sherry party. There was footage during this enjoyable documentary of somebody unidentifiable falling out a wheelbarrow in the background as Botham welcomed guests into his garden. "Everybody was totally relaxed," recalled Kath, Botham's wife, with a knowing smile. It was Kath and Liam Botham who provided the most telling insight into the man himself. Liam described loving him like a brother, which would seem a pretty savvy summary from his son. Botham still comes across as being most at home in a dressing-room culture – the Sky commentary box is not all that different.

Now, though, he is Sirian but in 1981 he was the very definition of an anti-Establishment figure, what with the "pot" smoking and an eye for the ladies, as I believe they say in the Long Room. His barely contained fury at the haughty silence that accompanied his return to the Lord's pavilion on completion of his famous pair raged out of the screen, but so did his sheer, joyous talent during his innings at Headingley. The film of him, helmetless, hooking Dennis Lillee off his eyebrows during the Old Trafford Test remains the most spectacular cricket has ever seen. The instinctive, fearless fling of the bat and clean thwack as the ball leaves it – it still thrills.

Botham does not stand out in his current role but he neatly fits his casting as the curmudgeon of the commentary box, in between trying to wind up Nasser Hussain. It's a familiar take for this column, but there is really no better sporting set-up on TV anywhere, or radio either – this is now so much better than Test Match Special. Although there has to be an exemption granted to NotsirGeoff Boycott. "Ohhh, you've dropped a cuckoo," he yelled at Andrew Strauss.

Later on Saturday, back on Sky, there was one glorious exchange between Sirian and David Lloyd, who is becoming a Lancastrian version of Doc Brown from Back to the Future, involving Lloyd's inability to tell the difference between a penguin and a wallaby. Which probably best sums up the state of most of the England side back on that night chez Botham 30 years ago.

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