BOOK REVIEW / It was a bit of a jape, but don't tell the wife: 'My Autobiography' - Ian Botham; Collins Willow, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
IAN BOTHAM - or Iron Bottom, as they say in India - was a cricketer of such outsized gifts that he could afford to burn them at both ends. He was also, less happily, what the commentators like to call, er, a big man in every sense, a larger-than-life character, bestrides the stage like a colossus, Mister 100 per cent, a giant among pygmies, etc. These cartoon cliches are a joke, naturally, but in a way the whole point of Botham's much- touted, pseudo-controversial autobiography is that it is the story of a man who refused to conform to the cartoon ideal of sporting excellence demanded by the modern media.

We seem to require effortless performers who miraculously turn, in the showers, into amusing and rueful after-dinner speakers full of self-effacing banter and obliging bonhomie. Botham, however, insisted on excess. His matchless performances were accompanied by hectic rum-and-brandy sessions, dope- smoking gala nights, epic fundraising walks and much else besides. We see Both as panto king, golfer, pilot, footballer, fisherman . . . and cricket gladiator. Oddly, the one thing he is modest about is cricket. 'Sure, I had bowled fast and mainly straight,' he writes, recalling the day he took five for one to win a Test match at Edgbaston, 'but enough to deserve the figures of five for one? Surely not. The Aussies had lost their bottle. There was no other explanation for it.'

Obviously it is hard, since it is co-written with Peter Hayter, to have much faith in the texture of the maestro's voice. But the book does seem to catch the authentic flavour of the man: a slightly lunkish, large-spirited and proud figure oddly willing to be small- eyed and petty when it comes to settling old scores. Botham was never out, and here he is never wrong. He deals with his likes (Richards, Close, Botham) swiftly and with his dislikes (Dexter, Gooch, Imran, Boycott) at some length. He is not a subtle thinker, but has a big-hearted, sentimental sense of right and wrong: his unambiguous criticisms of the England set-up, in particular, seem like straightforward common sense.

As for the embarrassing subtitle (Don't Tell Kath) - it is an accurate evocation of the laddish locker-room atmosphere in which life is for living to the full, know what I mean, and for Christ's sake don't tell the wife. Botham loves all this. Mrs Botham has to be a saint: her husband's reaction to bad news is to drink 'a couple of bottles of brandy' and then start giving the wife slip- catching practice with ashtrays and pizzas. The book is full of outspoken apologies, but Botham writes like a man who regrets nothing. He keeps saying that frankly he doesn't know how Kath put up with him, but we can tell he's proud to have been such a handful. We can almost see him giving himself a big wink: attaboy Beefy, you old rogue]

He is also proud (for some reason) of his sense of humour. There is one decent quip, when Botham pours scorn on the idea that Mike Gatting could ever have had a late-night 'romp' with a barmaid: 'Anything that goes into Gatt's room after 10 pm,' he remarks, 'he eats.' Otherwise it is the usual awful round of bully-boy pranks. No doubt about it, Beefy likes a joke, so long as he isn't the butt. 'If someone was sitting reading a newspaper,' he says, 'they knew they were asking to have the bottom of it set alight by a certain I T Botham. Even the Deep Heat in the jockstraps and cream cakes in batting gloves and shoes were all part of the fun.' A hoot, eh?

This sort of manly jesting ('horseplay') is justified by some sober-sided waffle about 'dressing-room spirit'; reading between the lines we sense that Botham was always the perpetrator, rarely the victim of these japes. He seems to think that tricking Gazza into having a few drinks (a downhill task if ever there was one) is some kind of an achievement, yet when someone spikes his own drink in a night-club (a real hoot, one of the all-time great gags), he does not see the funny side: 'Someone's idea of a sick joke had come near to making me seriously ill.' But this bullying streak ('all part of the fun') was actually part of the desire to dominate that made Botham such a peerless cricketer. The prattish jokes are the off-field version of adventurous shot-making. As John Arlott said: 'It's incredible. We expect this chap Botham to work cricketing miracles every day and still behave like a sombre vegetable.'

That he could never be. But it is all too easy, reading this book, to forget his utter brilliance as a player. The phenomenal records printed at the back (20,000 runs, 1,200 wickets) don't tell anything like the whole story. Botham batted as if he was swatting flies, and when he bowled he swarmed all over his opponent like some freak irresistible wind. If anything, he doesn't seem in this book to prize his own talent anything like highly enough; he is too busy being proud and defensive about his 'personality'.

It has been suggested that he is the first hero of the highlights era, that he appeals to a video-inspired taste for snippets; but the more likely story is that he is the first cricket star whose game was shaped by watching highlights. He couldn't be doing with building an innings or keeping the runs down; he believed in boundaries and diving catches and bouncers and wickets. Ideally, he would have worn a cape and a sword and tassles and come swinging in from the Pavilion End on a chandelier. Perhaps this was why he took to pantomime with such enthusiasm.

Towards the end, there is an almost moving moment of near-humility, when Botham makes his post-ban comeback and immediately takes a wicket. The crowd goes bananas, and Botham writes: 'As I had known all along, but sometimes failed to appreciate fully when the madness was going on, these were the people who made it all worth while; the ordinary cricket fans up and down the country who, whatever the newspaper editors might have thought, didn't give a toss what clothes I wanted to wear, what dreams my erstwhile agent had about making the next James Bond, or what allegations the newspapers were printing about me at any given time. They simply wanted to see Ian Botham and England do well on the cricket field.'

This is a routine sportsman's platitude, and is plainly true. But it is not quite clear that Botham believed it, then or now. He remains in love with the image of himself as Beefy, the swashbuckling cricket buccaneer, who might not be a saint but for God's sake we're all human, aren't we, and say what you like I always gave a hundred per cent through thick and thin, and all right so I made a mistake or two, who hasn't, but I took my punishment fair and square, so far as I'm concerned it's all about loyalty, and no one can say I didn't put my head in where it hurts, and all I know, hey, I'll try anything once, and if I had my time over, listen, mate, do you want this pint over your head. . .

Oh, and don't tell Kath.