Barney Ronay reviews
Ian Botham: the Power and the Glory
by Simon Wilde
Simon & Schuster, hb, 384pp, £20
A biography points up the unbridled force that first put the allrounder on a pedestal
IAN BOTHAM does not really need a rehabilitation but is nonetheless receiving one right now. He has remained undeniably A-list, undeniably mainstream and undeniably on TV screens a lot in the last 20 years. His status as a great player, or at least a great cricketing phenomenon, has remained less clear. Botham’s reputation has if anything deflated over the years, perhaps deprived of the necessary strident cult following by his own prominence as a pundit. In retirement Botham has been goonishly ever-present. Little wonder it is tempting to lose sight of him a little.
This is perhaps about to change. It is 30 years since 1981, the great, formative summer of Botham. A documentary film chronicling his folkish interweaving with that summer of riots and royalty is about to be released. And now comes Simon Wilde’s sensitive and sympathetic biography, a book that takes Botham as a whole, warts (small warts) and all, and allows us to marvel at him a little once again.
The Power and the Glory is slightly misleading, conjuring images of the standard Botham book of the last three decades: celebratory, bombastic and usually written by the man himself. In fact it is an even-handed, beautifully written and pleasingly gentle dissection that manages to make what might appear familiar material seem fresh. Wilde’s approach, the slow-burning chronological build-up to full-blown Beefiness, is surely right – a reminder that the most important factor in the Botham story is where he started out.
As Wilde says, “the 1970s was a decade from which everyone was trying to escape” and Botham in his early tangling with authority and the strictures of class, set up in a fascinating description of his time as a Lord’s groundstaff boy, was an outsider. It is this strikingly skyward trajectory of young Botham, his early anti-hero status, that often gets lost in the inanity of celebrity-era Botham.
These two distinct halves to the public Botham are divided very clearly by, in Wilde’s memorable phrase, that moment where he seemed to make “a conscious decision in the mid-1980s to wear striped blazers and strange hats, and long hair and droopy moustaches”. It is precisely this Botham, with his paunchy, fist-clenching antipathy towards the press, the yuppified paranoia of what might be called The Elton John Years, that has tended to overshadow and obscure the glorious younger cricketer.
His early career is beautifully told here, albeit that the social background – riots, unemployment, the full panorama of 1970s beige-ness, with England a decaying land waiting for a hero – is perhaps a little glossed. As Botham advances through the ranks Wilde is an attentive, non-judgmental companion. There are lovely details – Botham getting Geoffrey Boycott in a headlock after catching him trying to leave the team room with a bottle of wine on his first tour of Pakistan – and compelling technical deconstructions both of Botham’s merits, particularly as a bowler, and of key matches.
As with Botham’s own career, the best bits of the book are by necessity front-loaded into that opening five years of his career. Here, as Wilde writes, “there was a ferocious energy in everything he did … he was a joyous cricketer, playing for love and glory, with no hint of the jaundice that scarred his latter cricket”. Subsequent episodes – the late-1980s celebrity glad-handing; the larky winding down at Durham (where for a gag Botham bowled his final professional delivery having unzipped his flies “letting his old man” dangle free); and the subsequent punditry career – are described with mostly a fitting brevity.
The Power and the Glory gives back the best bit of Botham: a force of bucolic, youthful vim and cricketing modernity, straddling uncomfortably two eras, one of which he helped to shorten, the other to usher in.
Barney Ronay is a sportswriter for The Guardian and was a consultant on the documentary about the 1981 series From the Ashes, in cinemas now