Ian Botham at 65: 'I was happy to play the buffoon. But I listened more than I let on'

We almost met 50 years ago. I was in Liverpool about to open the batting for an England Public Schools Under-15s XI against the England Schools Cricket Association. Ian Botham had been there for almost a week playing for the West in a quadrangular tournament, after which the best XI from the four regions would take on the public schools’ side. Ian, who had performed well by all accounts, was not selected for that XI but he was invited to stay on as their 13th man, an invitation he furiously declined before catching the next train to Yeovil.

Before long we had both joined the Somerset staff in April 1974 and for over four decades in our contrasting ways we have stayed in touch with the game. Now, to the consternation of some, he has been elevated to the House of Lords but over the years I’ve learned not to be surprised by what happens to Ian. On Tuesday Lord Botham of Ravensworth is 65, often a time for reflection, and I spoke to him a few days ago.

Vic Marks: I imagine that being in lockdown does not suit you well. What have you been up to?

Ian Botham: Basically in the first lockdown I spent my time putting on two stone; in the second I’m close to getting rid of it. In all honesty I enjoyed the first one; it was the longest time I’ve had at home for ages with the family around. This time – and I know you might find this hard to believe – I’m in the gym for an hour every morning.

VM: Not bad for a 65-year-old. How are you going to celebrate your birthday?

IB: We should have both stopped celebrating birthdays many years ago. I’m on the wagon at the moment and I won’t be having a drink until Christmas morning.

VM: Not even a glass of your own wine? [Having left Sky in 2019 Botham Wines is now his main venture]

(Left to right): Vic Marks, Viv Richards, Brian Rose, Ian Botham and Peter Denning on the Lord’s balcony during Somerset’s victory over Nottinghamshire in the 1982 Benson & Hedges Cup Final.
(Left to right): Vic Marks, Viv Richards, Brian Rose, Ian Botham and Peter Denning on the Lord’s balcony during Somerset’s victory over Nottinghamshire in the 1982 Benson & Hedges Cup Final. Photograph: Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto/Getty Images

IB: Nothing until Christmas morning – that will be 10 weeks without a drink. The wine business is flying by the way and one reason is that I’ve blended them all myself [in Australia]. I only put wines out there that I would drink myself. And I’ve had 40 years of practice. Hopefully I’ll be back out there in March/April. We have to be able to move on. By then the whole world needs to move on. I wish I’d started doing this 15 years ago.

VM: I don’t remember you as much of a wine drinker in 1974. I thought you were downing pints of lager most of the time.

IB: It was never lager. Maybe it was pure cider in those early days.

VM: Also, I don’t remember you expressing much regret about anything before but you wish you had taken up the wine business earlier?

IB: I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it. But you’re right. I’ve never been one for regrets. I don’t look back very often. There will be plenty of time for that when I’m retired in my rocking chair with the great-grandkids. I’ve told my grandson, James – though I seem to be the only one who understands this – “You ride the torpedo ’til the end of the tube”. There’s no point looking back and thinking “if only”.

VM: James Botham … that rings a bell …

IB: Your research is terrible. He plays in the back row for the Cardiff Blues – he was born in Cardiff – and is in the Welsh team for the match against Georgia. He’s good.

VM: Let’s go back briefly to when we all started out at Somerset. At the time we thought you were just a happy-go-lucky, barnstorming buffoon. But in hindsight I’ve wondered whether this was all a bit of mask.

IB: I never imagined how it would turn out. But yes, I was happy to play the buffoon from Yeovil. And I did listen more than I let on. I’d often have the suicide drive with Closey [Brian Close, the captain, was renowned for his reckless driving; at the wheel he would study the card at Doncaster while lighting a cigarette and steering with his knees]. When travelling with him I’d listen intently. He had a lot of knowledge and I just used to tap into it. I used to love all that. Then there was Tom Cartwright. He and I talked a lot of bowling, more than anyone thought. When I was on the Lord’s groundstaff they didn’t think I could bowl at all.

VM: And there was Viv [Richards], of course.

IB: I came across him in an under-25s match against Glamorgan [in 1973]. I’d never met him; he had never met me and we hit it off straight away. Soon I was sharing a house with him and he was playing Test cricket and I guess I began to think if he can do it … why not me? And I suppose after that Hampshire match everyone started to take notice [in 1974 in a B&H game at Taunton, Botham, having been hit in the mouth by a bouncer from Andy Roberts, conjured what seemed an impossible win when batting down the order].

VM: You had to wait a while though. Viv first played Test cricket in November 1974. You did not start until July 1977.

IB: I should have played against Viv in 1976. Then I was told I was going on tour [to India] that winter. And then I was told I wasn’t, which was a bit of a blow. But I was over it in three minutes and spent much of the winter playing football. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing that I didn’t play … but you could not have told me that then.

VM: Even when you were picked for the winter tour of 1977-78 to Pakistan and New Zealand you didn’t get in the side straight away.

IB: It was ridiculous really. I was so frustrated I went and asked Brears [Mike Brearley] why I wasn’t playing. None of them [the alternatives] were good enough in my opinion. That was a turning point, I think. He may have realised there was a bit more to me when I was prepared to go and knock on his door. From that point on, his respect and understanding of me grew. And I know I walked out of that meeting feeling a lot better. I recognised that he had listened to me.

VM: What about 1981? If you were more prone to look back, 1981 could have become a massive burden. Look what you had achieved at the age of 25. How could you possibly match that in the future? It’s not a problem most of us encounter.

IB: That might have been the case if I had stopped to think about it. 1981 changed my life, no doubt about that. I couldn’t walk down to the pub with my mates. Everyone wanted a piece of you.

Botham leaves the field at Headingley after his 149 not out against Australia in 1981.
Botham leaves the field at Headingley after his 149 not out against Australia in 1981. Photograph: David Hickes/Alamy Stock Photo

VM: The innings of Ben Stokes at Headingley last year must have brought it all back to you.

IB: I saw a lot of parallels there. I watched it and I loved it and I’m a massive fan of Ben Stokes. I’d like to spend more time with him. We’re both very competitive animals. But they are never really around at Durham [where Botham is chairman]. They are always in their bubble. I really like the way Stokes is prepared to bowl when he’s not 100% fit. Sometimes you have got to do that.

VM: But there can be repercussions later in life. You’ve not been at your most mobile recently.

IB: That’s true. For the last two and half years pretty much I’ve been on crutches. That’s probably down to the walks. But I wouldn’t swap that for anything. Back in 1985 it was just an impulse to blurt out “John o’Groats to Lands End” before realising it’s 400 miles before you reach the English border. Geography was never my strong subject. But it is now. The first one [there were 17 of his charity walks in all] was amazing.

VM: I always remember your mate Crash [Chris Lander, who was the Daily Mirror’s cricket correspondent]. He turned up at John o’Groats to cover your first day and ended up being with you for the entire walk. Then, having reached Land’s End utterly exhausted, he had to go back to John o’Groats to retrieve his car.

IB: Dear Crash. When he got back up there he found that there was a £280 fine awaiting him. But the local council let him off.

VM: After Crash died in 2000 I witnessed one of the gobsmacking moments in your post-cricketing life, which was to see you high up in the pulpit of Wells Cathedral about to address the congregation. Somehow in 1974 I’d never pictured you in a pulpit.

Baron Botham of Ravensworth takes his seat in the House of Lords in October 2020.
Baron Botham of Ravensworth takes his seat in the House of Lords in October 2020. Photograph: House of Lords/PA

IB: I may well be there again this summer as there is a memorial service planned for one of the London cathedrals for Bobby [Willis].

VM: And there has been the knighthood and the elevation to the Lords, which I don’t recall being part of the grand plan back in the 70s.

IB: I’ll admit that the odds on that happening were long. I haven’t spent much time in the Lords yet. At the moment I can vote remotely – as a crossbencher. For people who live far from London you are on the train for hours in a mask and it’s not too healthy – though I eventually discovered that Kath and I got Covid back in January while in Cardiff. Thankfully it didn’t affect my palate, which is now my lifeline. Anyway I’m enjoying it and will be at Westminster more often when we get back to normal, especially when they are debating something I know about – like sport or the countryside. Not much point if it’s a trade deal with Japan.

VM: What about Brexit? We find ourselves in different corners on that.

IB: That doesn’t matter, mate. We won.

source: theguardian.com