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Strokes of genius and bad luck - Christopher Sandford

Blog | By Christopher Sandford | Sep 13, 2022

Botham on his way to a winning 149 not out

Christopher Sandford met Ian Botham just before that Headingley innings, 40 years ago

It was 7th July 1981, and I was at Lord’s, thinking, not for the last time, ‘Funny business, cricket.’

One moment, the nation’s basking in the all-round splendours of your performance. The next, you’re a laughing-stock. Little did I know that I was about to meet the embodiment of this boom-and-bust cycle.

To the side of the pavilion there was a small writing room. I was sitting there alone, smoking a small cigar, when the second of the summer’s Tests with Australia ended in a draw.

It was Ian Botham’s 12th match as captain of England, and he hadn’t won any of them. People were now calling for him – once the golden boy of cricket – to be sacked. There were a few boos from the crowd as he trudged off the field.

About five minutes later, the door to the room opened with the force of a gas-main explosion. Botham himself, still in his whites, strode in and sat down heavily on the edge of a desk immediately in front of me. He had a small beard and a gold chain round his neck, and looked a bit red in the face. The first thing he said was ‘Where are the others, then?’

When I politely told him I had no idea, he looked at me for a moment and asked if I had another cigar. I did.

‘I’ll buy you one later,’ Botham said, now more affable.

We sat there for several minutes, both smoking away. Eventually a conversation broke out; first about wine and then about the Channel Islands – where, coincidentally, he later bought a home. By now, we were getting on famously.

After about ten minutes, Chris ‘Crash’ Lander from the Daily Mirror poked his head round the door, shouted ‘He’s in here!’ and half a dozen other cricket correspondents quickly followed him in. After a minute of increasingly acrimonious to-and-fro, Botham, still smoking my cigar, announced, ‘You’ve got your wish and I’m not going to carry on on a match-by-match basis any more.’

He was particularly unhappy that when he’d walked back to the pavilion after being out for a duck, no one there had deigned to look him in the eye or even mutter, ‘Bad luck.’ One tabloid journalist asked, ‘In fairness, Ian, what should they have done? Cheered?’

That got another conversation going, and the man from the Sun asked Botham if he thought he was even worth his place in the team as a player. For a moment, I thought violence might break out in the Lord’s Pavilion. Harsh words followed.

In the end, Botham walked out and we went upstairs to hear Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, confirm that he and his colleagues had decided to make a change in the England captaincy, but that ‘We still believe in Ian as a player.’

That confidence would be amply justified a fortnight later at the Headingley Test. Botham took 6 for 95 in the first innings and scored 50. With England forced to follow on, Botham scored 149 not out and Willis took 8 for 43 to dismiss Australia for only 111. England won by 18 runs .

About 30 years later, I rang Botham to ask him about Imran Khan, about whom I was writing a book. In 1996, the two great all-rounders had been adversaries in a High Court libel action, which didn’t go well from Botham’s point of view. The phone call ended abruptly, and I never had the chance to remind him that he still owed me a panatella.