The Brian Viner Interview: Botham's macho menace survives

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THERE IS, I confess, a flutter of apprehension as I wait to face Ian Botham. The last time we met, at Edgbaston four years ago, I incurred his wrath by asking a question, deemed inappropriate, about his son Liam. The wrath of Botham is not pretty, although at least he didn't chase me round a car park in a fury, as he is famously said to have done the former Australian captain Ian Chappell.

I know it's history, but I can't resist raking that one up. "I was only a kid," protests Botham. "I don't give a stuff about Ian Chappell. There were so many stories. I was even meant to have threatened him with a glass." He snorts. "The day I need a glass to sort out Ian Chappell is the day I really have got to worry."

It is comforting, in a way, to find some of the old macho menace in an otherwise somewhat mellowed Ian Botham. We are at the county cricket ground in Southampton, watching England's final World Cup warm-up game, against Hampshire. For 20 minutes or so, I hover at the back of the Sky commentary box, just behind Botham and David Gower. Bob Willis and Paul Allott are also there. Botham leads the banter, taking the mick out of Gower's socks, someone else's cardie, the stance of one of the Hampshire batsmen. "Look, it's ****ing John Wayne," he says. Everyone laughs. Mellower, to be sure, but Botham is still cock of the walk.

He played in two World Cup finals. The first, against the West Indies in 1979, he can hardly remember. "I think Collis King and Viv Richards blasted us round the ground, but that's about it. Nobody expected us to win." He is still gutted, however, that England lost the 1992 final to Pakistan.

"We were the best team by a league in that World Cup but we were burnt out. We'd had a hard tour of New Zealand and, instead of having a rest in the two weeks before the World Cup, we were made to play stupid meaningless games of cricket among ourselves. So the injuries and niggles didn't go away. The management got it all wrong. Mainly Graham Gooch. I told him at the time that I didn't believe in naughty-boy nets, and some of us didn't need to run round fields. But he was dogmatic, stubborn, and it cost some of us what should have been the icing on the cake of our careers."

Gooch still looms large in the England set-up, but Botham at least has faith in the chairman of selectors, David Graveney. "Grav treats people like adults," he says. Might he yet become a selector himself? Reportedly, it is very much on the cards. "That's not my call. But I would like to help Grav, and he has already asked me for my opinions many times over the past year." So what, then, does he think of England's World Cup team? Would he have picked Ramprakash, for instance?

"I don't think so. I think it's about right. Gough is a delight for any captain. Graeme Hick would certainly be in my team, in Tests as well as one-day cricket. I think it's amazing that Robin Smith has been in the wilderness, though, a man with a 44 or 45 Test average. Unfortunately, Hick and Robin Smith in particular suffered during the Raymond Illingworth era, the darkest period in English cricket probably of all time.

"The damage that man has done is taking a lot of repairing. He destroyed team confidence, put people down. Awful person. A dinosaur. Should never have been given the job. He'll take no further part in English cricket, nor should he. A Neanderthal." Oh go on, Ian, say what you really mean.

At this point, a friend rings Botham on his mobile phone, with the news that a local bookmaker is offering odds of 33-1 against Ian Austin being England's leading World Cup wicket-taker. "I'll have pounds 50," says Botham. "It's terrific value, that, because Austin bowls at the death. In fact I'm wondering whether to have pounds 100." Later, the friend calls back to report that the nervous bookie has cut the odds to 16-1. "Still good value," declares Botham.

He predicts that England, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia will contest the semi-finals, but reckons that the England players should have been rested from county cricket in the run-up to the World Cup. "And I'd like someone to explain to me the logic of going to Sharjah," he says. "The boys should have come back from Australia and taken a month off, with some light training. They should have been allowed to bond as a unit."

On the thorny question of who should succeed David Lloyd as coach, Botham --who was himself invited, nine months ago, to coach the Sri Lankan bowlers, then heard no more - is torn between Bob Woolmer and Duncan Fletcher, the Zimbabwean in charge of Glamorgan. "It doesn't have to be an Englishman for me. But it does have to be someone not involved over the past three years or so. Someone with no baggage, not part of any clique. Matthew Maynard rates Fletcher very highly, and I have a lot of time for what Matty thinks. He is a good captain with a shrewd cricket brain."

The history books do not rate Botham's own captaincy as highly. This is nit-picking, given his many startling achievements with bat and ball, but never mind, let's pick nits. Does he concede, for instance, that his Ashes heroics of 1981 were only made possible when he was relieved of the England captaincy? After all, he played like a dog while captaining England, didn't he? I don't, in truth, put it quite as bluntly as that. But he gets my drift.

"It's not in my nature to agree with that," he says, calmly. "I was in great nick with Somerset and I knew that it would come with England, but they started giving me one Test at a time as captain, which was ridiculous. It was impossible for both me and the team to handle. Also, although I was captain for 12 Tests and we didn't win any, remember that 10 of them were against the West Indies of the Eighties - and we only lost those series 1-0 and 2-0, not 5-0."

Fair comment. Besides, in Viv Richards, that West Indian team had the man Botham considers to be the best cricketer of all time. Better even, he asserts, than Sir Donald Bradman. "I'm not attempting to put Sir Don down. I've tremendous respect for him. But if you look at the way cricket was played 50 years ago... the standards of fitness, of fielding, the lack of imagination. A guy could be 200 not out and there was still a silly mid-off. No, in the modern game there has never been a better player than Viv Richards and I doubt if there's ever been a better player full stop. I used to relish playing against him, and once we were out there, even though we were house-mates for 15 years and he's godfather to my son, it was a battle.

"Of course, it's impossible, really, to compare players even a decade apart. And I hope that if I'm still around in 10 or 20 years, if anyone hears me say `in my day' they will take me down to the bottom of a field and put me out of my misery. Growing up, my cricketing hero, as much as anyone, was Kenny Barrington. I later became very close to him, and it was tragic when he died in Barbados while I was captain. He was an amazing guy, Kenny. And one thing I learned off him, no matter how things were going, whether we were on top or being stuffed, I never once heard him say `in my day'."

So let me. In his day, Botham did not have the considerable burden of being tagged `the new Ian Botham.' Andy Flintoff is the latest to suffer comparison with England's greatest all-rounder, and Botham wishes it would stop. "He's no more the new Ian Botham than I was the new Garry Sobers, but it's an easy way for journalists to lose a paragraph. Anyway, I was a bowling all-rounder, initially, and he's a batting all-rounder. But I like the way he takes the game to the opposition, and I think the World Cup is a wonderful stage for him."

When Botham left the cricketing stage, in 1993, he did so emphatically. At first he declined "about a thousand offers a month" to play in charity games, benefits and the like. Now it is down to about 100. He has not wielded a bat nor bowled a ball since his retirement, nor does he intend to, but his competitive juices flow as freely as ever. "If I go with Mike Atherton for a night's sea trout fishing, or with a group of mates to Scotland, we'll have wagers on the biggest fish, most fish, first fish, you name it."

Similarly, he has been known to strike the odd bet on the golf course. He has a handicap of six, and hopes to become good enough to play county golf, yet derides a recently publicised notion that he might join the senior tour when he is 50, in 2005. "In every sport you find good club players who think they're the bees' knees, but there is an enormous gap between them and the pros," he says. His all-time sporting hero is Jack Nicklaus. They met once, when Nicklaus came over for the opening of a course in Wales, and played a round with Ian Woosnam. Botham caddied for Woosnam that day. "And Jack knew who I was. I was surprised."

By now, we have bonded sufficiently for me to pop the question. How's Liam getting on? Botham talks proudly about his son's achievements playing rugby for Cardiff, where he was recently voted Most Improved Player. He chortles when I remind him that he got ratty with me when I mentioned Liam last time, but that was because Liam was then trying to make it as a professional cricketer, and insensitive hacks kept drawing parallels with the old man. So let us reverse the comparison. How good was Botham Snr at rugby? "I played one game, at school. I was sent off after 20 minutes. Misinterpretation of the rules." Well I never.