You'd be mad to do it, Beefy; PROFILE: Ian Botham

Why a great England cricketer would make a terrible England selector. By Robert Winder
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The Independent Online
It is beginning to look like a typically English story. The campaign to get Ian Botham a job at the top of England cricket (a campaign driven, ironically, by the very papers that hounded Botham almost to death when he was a player) is swiftly threatening to turn into a farce. After England's poor showing in the World Cup recently there is a strong and understandable desire for a major shake-up at the top of the game. And Botham, the irreverent people's champion who played like a genius, drank like a navvy, strode up hill and down dale raising money for charity, and attacked everything in life head-on, seems like a natural for a role as Messiah. Nine people have applied for the two vacant posts, but Botham's is the name that is hogging the headlines.

That is partly because of the Byzantine way English cricket goes about these things. Only a week after a ludicrous episode in which a couple of counties organised a failed putsch against Ray Illingworth, the powers- that-be find themselves in an embarrassing spot once again. Yesterday the Test and County Cricket Board, the sport's ruling body, circulated a letter to the counties whose votes will decide which two selectors should be added to the five-man panel. It looked like a clear attempt to head off Botham's bid. "At least one of the nominations," the letter read, "is, we believe, very heavily connected with the media." It went on to point out that such media connections (Botham writes a column in the Mirror and commentates for Sky) are regarded as disqualifying.

We believe? Very heavily connected? It sounds as if the man they're talking about is part of some underworld mafia. This is the kind of language used by ancient judges cheekily pretending they haven't heard of the Beatles, and it will add grist to the mills of those who feel that a blast of Bothamesque air is just what the game needs.

On the face of it, things might seem to have come to a pretty pass when a man who is arguably England's best player ever (20,000 runs, 1,200 wickets) is regarded as an unsuitable chap to help pick the present team. But of course the issue isn't that simple.

The reluctance to accept Botham onto the selection panel is not simply because of Botham's long-held and barely disguised contempt for cricket's ruling class -his "gin-soaked dodderers" preceded Will Carling's "old tarts" by almost a decade; nor is it solely explainedby Botham's sharp lack of enthusiasm for the chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth ("If I had my way, I'd take him to the Traitor's Gate and personally hang, draw and quarter him"). It is undeniably true that nearly everything Botham has ever done has been dogged by controversy: brawls, court cases, scandalous headlines and all. But even this does not properly explain why he is being cold-shouldered.

The most telling case against Botham is that the very qualities that made him such a brilliant grandstanding player are precisely the ones unlikely to make him an effective selector.

In all the column inches devoted in recent days to the Botham case ("Lord's Letter Knifes Botham ... Let's all Boycott Beefy") hardly any have given the least thought to whether Botham would be any good at the job if he got it. Everyone in cricket knows that the man was a bloody marvel, but ask them whether he should be in charge and they tend to raise their eyes to the ceiling and laugh. It is not axiomatic that the greatest players make the best managers - Ray Illingworth might be a case in point. But in England these days there is a kind of celebrity-hysteria that finds it hard to think further than attention-grabbing big names.

But Botham's own huge reservoir of natural talent led him to be famously impatient with those less gifted than himself - which included almost everyone. And he was, just as famously, a reckless individualist and bon viveur. "Cricket's hierarchy," he wrote last summer, "would probably pass out with shock if they knew how much booze was put away by certain England players and myself between the Saturday night and the Monday when I hit my unbeaten 149 in the amazing Headingley Ashes Test." He did, indeed, play with a huge beery grin that day, and very wonderful it was too. But there wouldn't be many serious takers for a selector who judged players first and foremost by how well they held their drink.

To be a selector is to be part of a team of chaps in suits -you win some arguments, lose a few, and have to watch a depressing amount of county cricket by way of research. It calls for a sober-sided man (women needn't apply) of unusual patience, and Botham - as he exhilaratingly admitted in his autobiography - seems an implausible candidate. As a player, he made up for the notorious size of his appetites with the briefness of his attention-span. And he has a famously short fuse. As his autobiography delights in informing us, when things went wrong he used to go home, drink "a couple of bottles of brandy" and throw ashtrays and pizza at his wife. No wonder the selectors are trembling.

It is hard to believe, actually, that this is the job Botham wants. There is a much stronger case for him to be involved in the revving-up of the team itself - you sense he'd love to be down there with the boys, boasting about past triumphs, tipping beer over their heads, and rousing them on to greater things. More than that, he is a direct and forceful polemicist about the future of the game in this country. He wants the whole present structure torn up and rebuilt, and there are fewer and fewer people who would disagree with him on that.

His ideas on man-management, too, are pretty sound: his main observation about the present England team is that the lads don't seem to be enjoying it enough - and that is plainly true. But it would seem a classic compromise - almost a botched job - if he were to go on and become a selector.

There's no doubt that there's a mass of things he could do, but this might be too small a pond for a man of his hectic energy. It would be like giving Pavarotti a part in the chorus; you just know that, like the noisy brat in the infants' school choir, he'd end up spoiling it for everyone else.