Friday, July 8, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Sir Ian Botham by Jonathon Kilroy

My Favourite Cricketer is a series run on Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch that brings together some of the best Cricket writers and bloggers in the world to reminisce about the players who make us love this game.  This week's piece is by debutant Jonathon Kilroy.

It's strange to think that he's been retired for so long because his shadow hovers over English cricket. It's nearly twenty years now since his final fling, meaning Ian Botham has been a commentator for longer than he's I remember him playing for. Perhaps it's because he's never been out of the public eye and retains much of his intense likeability. In fact, it's thirty years this week (!) since his onslaught at Headingley turned the 1981 Ashes on its head and cemented his place among the greatest of the greats.

After an early career at Somerset and a remarkably high-profile stint in Melbourne club cricket, Ian "Beefy" Botham made his Test debut in 1977. He was fast, had the Somerset knack of moving the ball through the air and his formidable physique allowed him to dispatch the ball at extreme velocity with the willow. His early Tests showcased more of his swing bowling than batting (he batted at 8 in those days) and his combination of skills and obvious potential meant he was the next great All-Round prospect for England. Now, thirty-five yeras on, he remains the gold standard.

A shuffle to the bowling crease belied his pace. He started as a genuine quick but as injuries took their toll - particularly an ailing back - he lost a lot of penetration, changing over time into a crafty medium. In the end it was no matter, for when "Golden Bollocks" was fit, he was picked. More than any other one player during his fifteen year international career, he was the archetypal matchwinner. No player in the world, perhaps to this day, could compare to his ability with bat, ball, or in the field. Especially - wonderfully - against the Australians.

Beefy saved his greatest feats for the Colonials. As Australian cricket was for so long the polar opposite of English, Botham had his antithesis in Allan Border. AB fought admirably for the Australians from a shifting base but with one great difference. Where Border fought first to survive and then to win, Botham served as the vanguard or as a one-man volatile rearguard. Rather than have terms dictated to him, "Beefy" would dominate or die trying. Egregious, almost garrulous, he carried that attitude off the park as well - one was always left with the sense he loved life.

You can't evaluate "Guy the Gorilla" without mentioning Botham's Ashes. In a sentence, he started the series shockingly out of form, was removed from the captaincy and then unleashed holy hell once the pressure lifted. That took the form of a blistering 149* to turn the series on its head at Headingley, followed by a spell of 5/1 at Edgbaston to seal victory for England. Botham had failed as a captain - like many of the era, many of his first Tests as skipper were against the West Indies and their fearsome pace attack. But that failure also led him to the most impossible high, cemented at The Oval with 118 in an innings Dennis Lillee rated better than his Headlingley counter-punching. To seal permanently his "Golden Balls" nickname, it was he who was thrown the ball to win England the match at Melbourne in 1982.

"Both" was only twenty-six at the time of his greatest triumph. Though he'd played at the highest level for only four years, his remarkable exploits were half over. Although he departed International cricket in 1992, he didn't score a hundred or take five wickets in an innings after the 1986-87 Ashes in Australia. By that time, his body had been robbed of much the explosiveness. It wasn't all gone as he monstered a youthful antipodean attack, including 22 from one Merv Hughes over. Had he retired after 200 (rather than 383) Test wickets, his career average would have been 21.2 - seven and a half runs less per wicket than he finished at (28.4) and third-best all time.

He had his fair share of down days - allegations of marijuana use, extra-marital affairs and a feud with Imran Khan amongst others - and occasionally rubbed the establishment (and apparently Ian Chappell) the wrong way, but that was simply a fucntion of his indomitable self-belief.

That confidence allowed him to accomplish what seemed miraculous at the time, deeds out of the ordinary which pulled England - not just the team, but the country - along with him. An oft-used quote of sportsmen is that one walks taller when knowing a certain player was in your line-up. It could be said of India and Sachin Tendulkar, Australia with Dennis Lillee and Pakistan with Imran Khan. This was most definitely true of Botham's England. He, like those other champions knew inherently, unshakeably that they could dramatically change the landscape of any game if only the captain would just give them the damned ball.

Since retirement, it's become apparent that Sir Ian Botham has been fitted with the enviable mix of gifts: of natural talent, the belief that brings and considerable self-awareness. He is also a remarkable humanitarian. Ian Terence Botham, a gregarious sports star with a conscience became eminently likeable as a beer-drinking, sociable everyman. A player who just happened to be blessed with more talent than anyone of his era.

He will always be the all-rounder by which Englishmen are judged.

Recommended viewing: ESPNCricinfo's Legends of Cricket: Ian Botham

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