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Interview with Sir Ian Botham OBE

Sir Ian Botham

We may still have English cricketers who display the stuff of which heroes are made - all-rounder Andrew Flintoff and spin-bowler Monty Panesar, for example, have both attracted huge personal followings amongst England fans - but somehow we struggle to produce players who achieve the legendary stature of a Geoff Boycott or an Ian Botham. It isn't a question of talent or ability: our current players have both. Perhaps there is a certain individuality or spark of rebelliousness that has yet to show itself, for those qualities were certainly manifest in both Botham and Boycott: Botham with his attacking, sometimes reckless, approach and Boycott with his stubborn, defensive style, doing his own thing, sometimes to the frustration of his captain and team mates.

For a wonderful moment during the early 1980s, English cricket hit a wild, unpredictable peak. People of limited attention span, who usually considered the game less entertaining than football, found themselves mesmerised by their TV screens as Ian Botham, a recently resigned former England captain with an inconsistent record and a controversial public profile, proved himself to be the world's most outstanding all-rounder, and the all but single-handed saviour of England's 1981 Ashes series against Australia - a series still known as ‘Botham's Ashes'.

Even if he had never played another stroke or bowled another over, Botham's place in sporting history would have been secure. While captaincy was clearly not his natural role, when free to concentrate on playing the game, his achievements could be spectacular. The ‘81 Ashes saw Botham produce 399 runs and take 34 wickets. At the beginning of the series an Australian win seemed to be clearly on the cards, but in the end, largely thanks to Botham's determination and power, England retained the Ashes with a 3-1 victory.

Ian Botham retired from professional sport in 1993, taking a bit of a rest before launching a new career as a commentator. The decision to retire from playing was made during a family holiday.

“We had a holiday home in the Channel Islands and Kath [Sir Ian's wife] was there with the children. I told her I would be back in a couple of days and she asked what I meant, because I was supposed to be away for the whole of August. I said ‘No I've had enough, I'm retiring. We're playing Australia for the next couple of days, but after that I'm retiring'. And that's exactly what happened. I was back on the island three days later. Retired, finished, done and dusted.”

His cricketing years are well remembered and well documented. There is really not much we could write that hasn't been covered elsewhere (for example, in Botham's autobiography, Head On - Botham: The Autobiography), so when Regtransfers dropped in to deliver his new personal registration, B33 FYS (‘Beefy's'), Sir Ian spoke to us about his current career and his interests outside the commentary box.

“A lot of people when they finish professional sport, they have this big, low drop, because they haven't got that dressing room comradeship any more: the humour, the banter. I've been very lucky."

"I've gone straight into the commentary box with a player I've played with and the people I've played against. So we still have that same humour and banter. I am very lucky in that sense. Not many people can say they get up in the morning and enjoy it, but my job is great. I go and see all the best cricket. I attempt to do the internationals.”

Including the England matches, presumably... “I pull my hair out watching England at the moment. That's why I cut it short!” The comment is partly tongue in cheek. Botham has gone on record with praise for Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff, Monty Panesar and others.

“For the second half of the summer, it was a pleasure to commentate on the cricket, with the arrival of Kevin Pietersen as the new captain,” he says.

His passion for the game has clearly survived beyond his retirement from the field. Botham cares about English cricket and he is supportive of the team itself, even if that support sometimes involves pointing out any shortcomings he might perceive; but it is well known that he is less supportive of decisions made by the selectors and others in charge. Botham, like many, lays blame at the selectors' door for many of England's lean periods. His outspoken opinions on what he believes to be the best interests of the England team do not always make for cordial relationships. Former coach Duncan Fletcher, who Botham described as being “past his sell by date” when calling for his replacement in 2007, indulged in some bitter, retaliatory sniping in his autobiography later that year.

The commentating is now Botham's main work, although he does have additional business interests and, of course, his work for Leukaemia Research, the charity of which he is now President.

“Sky is my main living and I have my own company, Mission Sports Management. Then, of course, there are Shredded Wheat and the beef and lamb ads. I drive a Volkswagen and I do a bit of PR for VW. I do a bit of PR work for a few people and companies. There are lots of little contracts around, but most of my time now is taken up with Sky. Shredded Wheat has been a long-term association, since 1981, and one that I enjoy doing. Good fun, good company. We have fun doing the filming.

"I think kids now probably know me best as the Shredded Wheat man, or the beef and lamb man. Yeah, Mr Shredded Wheat!”

Sir Ian is busier than ever, and estimates that he spends more time away from home now than he did when he was still playing.

“If anyone tells you retirement is winding down... Well, I don't know, I haven't got to that point yet. The only thing I actually retired from is the cricket field. “The summertime is at home, predominantly. The wintertime, October to April, I'm usually overseas. I might get home for Christmas - I will do this Christmas. It's India and the West Indies this winter, with Christmas at home. Then I'm away again until April. There's South Africa next winter, so that'll be Christmas away. 2010/2011 is Australia, so the whole winter and Christmas away again. It is a lot of travelling, but I love it. I love going around the world. In fact, Kath would not have it any other way. If I'm home for more than about four days, she'll have my bag ready at the back door.”

The mention, earlier, of VW prompts us to ask about his cars.

“I've always liked cars. I think that any bloke that says he doesn't is either lying or he needs help! Every bloke loves cars. They are fantastic, great machines. From Mini Coopers to something like the Bentley, the Mercedes and the VW, they're all great. Kath has a Mercedes, my son's got a Discovery and his wife has an Audi something or other. Very fast thing.”

And what is Sir Ian's favourite - his ideal car?

“My dream car? I think I'd actually like one that can fly. If there's one thing I hate it's sitting in traffic jams. So my ideal car would be able to fly. [Laughs] Maybe a helicopter, or something from Thunderbirds.”

While a levitating car might be the solution to Sir Ian's traffic problems, he is not a fan of heights. He reportedly declined to work from one Sky commentary box upon discovering that the box in question was actually a Portakabin perched 100 feet up a scaffolding tower. He selected an alternative position, located in the main pavilion, and later said, “I'll go in helicopters and planes, they're meant to fly - commentary boxes aren't.” His colleagues, Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton, admitted that the wind blown, elevated commentary box had not been the most comfortable of environments.

Of earthbound vehicles, Botham finds it difficult to choose a favourite.

“I can't really pick one ideal car - I can go from a Mini Cooper to a Ferrari to a Bentley. I think the car I'm really looking forward to, which is coming on Monday, is the Volkswagen Tourareg R50. I just think it's taking it to a new dimension. I'm really looking forward to it. I've not driven in that one yet. I've sat in it and gone through the spec, but I haven't actually driven it, so I'm looking forward to Monday."

“The Bentley gets used quite a bit; but living up here and still needing to go to London, I never know if the drive is going to take me four hours or seven hours, because of the total chaos on the road. I can't work like that, so I tend to fly down or go on the train. I drive when I am up here in the north and in and down to the Midlands and even occasionally down to the south west, but London I avoid like the plague. It's just a nightmare to drive there. Congestion charges, parking - there's nowhere to park.”

Sir Ian's Bentley is the vehicle he has chosen to display his new B33 FYS personalised registration, although there were a few second thoughts involved.

“I think it's nice to personalise something. Of course, sadly, you do get some people who think a nice plate is an invitation to scratch your car. Mine's just come back from the garage now after being scratched. The Bentley, that is - and that one didn't even have a personal plate on it. So, I've decided it's not made a difference. I might as well put B33 FYS on there.”

The Bothams have collected quite a few private number plates between them.

“The KB plate is Kath's. My son, Liam, has got a great one: H1 LJB for “Hi, Liam James Botham”. His wife, Sarah Jane, has one... and Sarah B [Sir Ian's daughter]. I have a couple. It's something we all do. I saw one the other day for my grandson, Regan. We could get it now and put it on DVLA Retention Scheme. It makes a nice present when they pass their driving tests.”

The Great British Walk

At the time of writing, Sir Ian is preparing himself for one of his famous charity walks in aid of the Leukaemia Research Fund.

His efforts in the cause are largely responsible for the honours that have been bestowed upon him. Now President of the charity, he has been supporting Leukaemia Research since 1977, and began his famous charity walks in 1985 after a visit to a children's ward at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton. The plight of young people with the illness moved him to promise his support.

Botham's first Land's End to John O'Groats walk was the first of many. The forthcoming walk will be his twelfth.

“I think people appreciate the time we give up for it. We have golf days and fund raising dinners. I have another walk in October, so it doesn't really stop. And as president of Leukaemia Research, I'm always active. So many charities now have to rely on people like us to raise money - they won't get it from any other source. But we are winning, and the thing that drives us and keeps us going is the knowledge that we're making serious headway into Leukaemia. There's now an 85% chance of survival in children's Leukaemia. Twenty years ago that would have been 20%. The stats are there.”

Obviously, famous people receive endless requests from charities that are desperate for assistance with fundraising. As Kath explains, since it is impossible to help everyone, it seems to make sense to focus on one.

“Eric Morecambe gave good advice about the many people asking for help. He said ‘Put all your efforts into one charity and the rest will understand'. That's how Leukaemia Research benefited.”

During the October walk, Botham expects to cover about 20 miles a day.

“I'll be doing nine cities or towns, but the thing that makes this one unique is that the last five miles of each day will be done off road. For instance, the first one is in Taunton on the 10th, and the last four or five miles will be done along the Taunton to Bridgewater canal, so we can have up to 500 people. Windsor's the second day and we'll finish the last four or five miles in Windsor Great Park so the people can come and join in. We'll be able to raise even more awareness and, we hope, a lot more money. We're always looking for new angles.”

Has Sir Ian started training yet?


Does he train?

“Er... no.”

Time to change the subject with one last question. Where does Ian Botham go when he is looking for his number plates?

“Well, what I'm going to do from now on is phone Regtransfers and see what you can come up with.”

The perfect answer, and we didn't even have to prompt him!

Story: Rick Cadger
Interview: Angela Banh
Photography: Stan Thompson

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