It’s coming up to 30 years since one of English cricket high water marks: the improbable comeback in the 1981 Ashes. This momentous, but hardly undocumented, achievement is the subject of a feature documentary From the Ashes but it also crops up, inevitably, in a new biography of Ian Botham by Simon Wilde, cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a great reader of cricket books. Forgive me if that sounds like a shocking admission from the editor of a cricket magazine but my view really is that life’s too short to be spent on cricket books when I spend most of my waking hours obsessing about one aspect or other of the game.
However, I’m well into the Botham one and I’d recommend it highly. It takes some doing to take on a subject as well documented as the life and times of IT Botham. Plenty would not even bother and I’m sure there will be some potential readers who may simply sigh and feel they know all there is to know about the subject.
Or perhaps, that Botham isn’t for them because they had other heroes from a different era. But Botham’s time was my childhood and early teenager years so like many thousands of people of my age, I’m deeply attached to that period of English cricket.
One of the things that struck me about Botham’s early career (which I guess just preceded my cricketing interest) was how unfancied he was. That Peter Willey was considered more talented, is one of the book’s observations. When he first got into the England side Mike Brearley rated Chris Old more highly.
In the early days, he could hit the ball hard but was considered loose and his bowling, certainly at the time he was on the Lord’s groundstaff, was barely even acknowledged as a string to his bow.
But what he clearly had in abundance was self-belief, a belief that must have been innate because it wasn’t justified by performance. What talent he had, allied to physical attributes, only emerged later.
The sporting landscape is littered with would-be contenders and the early part of Botham’s career raises the question of whether talent will always out or whether circumstance and opportunity play their part.
Botham seemed to find most of his time on the Lord’s staff a waste of time yet it fuelled his fire and nurtured his sense of anti-establishment injustice that inspired him to keep driving on.
Then there’s Tony Greig and his defection to Packer that opened the England door to Botham. Greig clearly resents Botham’s heroic status in England and rates his ability at least on a par with Botham’s. I never saw Greig in the flesh but he was undoubtedly a fine, tough player with a shrewder cricket brain than Botham.
But he should hardly be surprised at Botham’s folk-hero status. Sporting heroism comes in many forms but it is not necessarily the best or most consistent who are the most lauded.
And that leads on to the old question of how good Botham actually was. Plenty would say ‘who cares?’ He did what he did and those were phenomenal achievements, regardless of the unimpressive record against the world’s best side of the era.
I think Botham cast a shadow over the English game for a long time, in the way that his great West Indian peers cast a shadow over their region’s cricketers now. It was hard for many England players – and I don’t just mean the allrounders – to flourish while this huge figure who had a captive media/public audience could fling reactive, often uninformed criticism around unchallenged.
I can’t claim to know him personally but he seems to have mellowed. The knighthood probably helped with that. And that highlights one of the great contradictions of the man who raged against the ‘gin-slinging dodderers’ while simultaneously wanting their acceptance.
Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now
John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer
Follow him on Twitter @WisdenCric_John