A working class hero is something to be.
—JOHN LENNON, 1970
Not all the time, though, as Ian Terence Botham spent much of last summer finding out. And he had reached his lowest point, perhaps, on a Sunday afternoon two months ago. That was in the resort town of Weston-super-Mare in Avon as the rain I fell, and the day's cricket looked sure to be washed out.
Restlessly, he shifted in his chair in the players' pavilion, all 6'2" of him, 220 pounds at a fairground guess, muscled like a Clydesdale, blond-streaked hair on his collar. And even though to the average Englishman, to the kind who now sat wetly in the unsheltered $6 seats in the meager hope of seeing him at bat, he was Drake, Nelson and Churchill rolled into one, his own feelings were those of a moody Coriolanus, exiled from his rightful domain. "Should have gone bloody fishing," he said, meaning it.
It was strange to see Botham, arguably the best player of the century, sitting there idle. To find his like in sport, to find someone who has so dominated his chosen game, you would have to go back more than half a century, to another ball game and to Babe Ruth.
Just as in Ruth's case, his range of skills is extraordinary. He is a mighty hitter with the bat, perhaps the most explosive and dramatic ever seen. In earlier years, especially, he was demonic with the ball. And always he has been brilliant in the field. In international competition (Test matches, as they are called) he has had no equal as an all-rounder—batsman and bowler. He has scored 4,577 runs for his country, including 13 centuries (innings, that is, in which he has hit 100 runs or more). He has held—made—97 catches. And also, agonizingly, he now needed to take only two more wickets (cricketese for putting a batsman out) to break the world record, held by Australia's Dennis Lillee, of 355 taken in Test matches.
But even that tiny gap looks unbridgeable this soaking day, for now, at 30, it seems as if Botham has to prove himself all over again. He has just come off a two-month suspension, and though he is back with his club side, Somerset, his future on England's national team—from which he has never been dropped for cricketing reasons since he first played for his country in 1977—looks worse than bleak. He has been away from cricket since May 30, and at this point there seems no chance of his recall this year, if ever. The men who choose the national team are, in the main, those who suspended him in May, the Test and County Cricket Board, a body, some claim, so hidebound that it makes the All England Club, which governs Wimbledon, seem like a bunch of giggling, pink-coiffed trendies.
That suspension had come after Botham—everybody calls him Both to rhyme with broth—had, in mid-May, confessed in a London newspaper that as a younger man he had occasionally used cannabis. And typically, after sentence had been pronounced—driven, it seems, by the self-destructive urge that all his life has marched in step with his superb athleticism—he had compounded the offense by standing up and publicly calling his judges "gin-slinging dodderers" at a cricket club dinner.
That, of course, is just what you would expect from a working-class hero, a fellow whose father was a navy CPO; who never went to college, let alone Oxford or Cambridge; a beefy kid who had run with street gangs. He left school as soon as he legally could, because, he would say later with characteristic flippancy, he could see no point in learning mathematics. (He might have been right there. All through his adult life, scoreboards and scorekeepers—occasionally desperately flustered scorekeepers—have looked after all the important figuring for him.) Some might find a touch of pathos in the stories of his peering through the railings to watch the home games of Yeovil Grammar School (roughly the equivalent of senior high school), from which he could have graduated.
But he has always been intensely loyal to old friends, in particular to Viv Richards, a West Indian from Antigua a couple of years his elder. Richards joined the Somerset club in the season after' the 18-year-old Both. Richards developed into as great a batsman as the Englishman is an all-rounder and on the way became the godfather of Botham's children. Anybody who assumed in Both's presence that he shares what in England is still a fairly common antiblacks-in-sport prejudice would have a fair chance of having his face flattened. And passion still comes into Botham's voice when he talks of the racial barracking that sometimes goes on at English cricket grounds.
With typical perversity, you could say, a more recent good friend is Allan Borders, captain of the national side of archenemy Australia. There are those who find something unbecoming, to say the least, in newspaper reports of Botham and Borders heading out to dinner or playing golf together in the very middle of a Test match.