Ian Botham: The Undisputed Titan of Cricket’s All-Round Excellence

David Gower said: Ian Botham, whom I played alongside in 87 Test matches, was a genius of self-belief. He never knowingly admitted to self-doubt and although there must have been times, especially against the mighty West Indies, when even he surely privately wondered whether the Ian Botham magic could be made to work, this outward expression of supreme confidence in his ability, backed up by immense talent, served him spectacularly well. However tough the job, he believed he could find a way to get it done, and more often than not, he did, carrying the rest of the team along with him.
Such players are few and far between—Shane Warne was a later example for Australia—and accordingly, a captain’s dream. For the period that he was in his pomp, from 1977 to 1981 with the ball and from 1981 to 1985 with the bat, Ian Botham’s self-belief was England’s 12th man. He was not someone who saved performances for games that did not matter. He produced many of his greatest efforts against Australia: in 36 matches against them, he scored 1,673 runs, took 148 wickets, and held 57 catches.
Few Test allrounders have ever been as effective as he was with bat and ball at the same time: five times he scored a century and took a five-for in the same Test match, a feat no one else has achieved more than twice. He was spectacular to watch and exhilarating to be anywhere nearby. Sometimes, of course, the refusal to countenance failure—inculcated by his mentor Brian Close—took him beyond what was possible and he needed reining in, but most of the time it was hard not to think that England’s best plan was to go with our talisman.
When I was appointed England captain for a second time in 1989, I brought him back into the side even though, following injury, he had recently not played much cricket because, even then—and Ian Botham was by now 33 years of age—I still had absolute belief in him and he still had absolute belief in himself. As it happened, it did not work out for him that summer, but then it did not work out for any of us as we were trounced by Allan Border’s rejuvenated Australians. Ian Botham instinctively knew how to win games of cricket, which is a knack that not even some very good player’s master.
Yet it is one he had from the outset, as he showed in one of his very early games for Somerset. When, as an 18-year-old boy, he was hit by an Andy Roberts bouncer, spat out a couple of broken teeth, and carried on to see his county home in a Benson & Hedges Cup quarter-final against Hampshire.
This same ability, of course, was at the core of his exploits in the remarkable 1981 Ashes series—three Test matches in a row won and three man-of-the-match honors for Ian Botham.  In each game—first at Headingley, then Edgbaston and Old Trafford—his telling contributions came in the second innings when the fate of the contest remained in the balance, or, as was the case at Headingly, ridiculously in Australia’s favor.
England’s hopes were pretty slim too at Edgbaston, where, curiously, he needed some persuading to bowl again with Australia closing in on their target. Once he got the ball in his hand, he was irresistible, though, and finished the game with a spell of five wickets in 28 balls. Other less celebrated interventions at the business end of games came at The Oval in 1979, when India was racing towards what would have been a record-breaking run-chase of 438 before Ian Botham applied the brakes with a catch, three wickets, and a run-out to earn England a draw, and at Melbourne in 1982, when he finally broke (courtesy of a juggled catch between slips Chris Tavare and Geoff Miller) a stubborn last-wicket partnership between Allan Border and Jeff Thomson to give England an agonizing three-run win.
No wonder we questioned who wrote his scripts. Ian Botham did not win every game that came down to the wire. He also masterminded a number of crushing victories, the most notable of which may have been in the 1980 Mumbai Golden Jubilee Test, when he amassed a century and claimed 13 wickets, with the ball appearing to be played on a pitch that would have been more appropriate for England than India. The conditions, though, were hot and humid and bowling fast would have been very hard work for anyone lacking Ian Botham’s iron strength. He thought nothing of it and, on one day, bowled 24 overs unchanged.
For the sake of historical authenticity, it should be noted that he was not necessarily fatigued from a full night’s sleep during that game. Off the field, Ian Botham was one of the most full-on men you’ll ever meet, something I, along with countless teammates and opponents, learned to our cost! When he was at his best, before his back started giving him trouble, he was the most dangerous swing bowler in the world. He was tall, lithe, strong, and always willing, and he had been well schooled in the art by Tom Cartwright at Somerset.
When I first played alongside him for England in 1978, I saw batsmen who did not know which way the ball was going to swing; they either missed it or nicked it. There was some criticism that he was often playing against teams weakened by defections to the World Series but the way he bowled, he would have gotten out even better. The figures did not lie. In just four years, he had taken 200 Test wickets in just 41 matches (only four bowlers have ever gotten to this landmark in fewer games). If he was less consistently menacing thereafter, he still had his moments.
In 1985, I used him in short bursts as a strike bowler against Australia and he was mighty effective; our mistake was to try the same ploy in the West Indies a few months later. Nor was he ever too proud to get a wicket with a bad ball; again, like Shane Warne, he would do what was necessary to make a breakthrough. I once saw him take a five-for in a Test match in Melbourne (in 1986–87) when only two-thirds fit, bowling all manner of filth, and you walked off the field thinking, ‘How on earth did he manage that?’
He was by then the leading wicket-taker in Test history, a position he held for two years. It says something about Ian Botham that none of the other holders of this record were anything like as influential with the bat or came close to rivaling his 14 Test match hundreds.
As a batsman, Ian Botham was at his best as a counter-attacker, but his play was usually fundamentally sound, based on good technique, nice balance, and a high backlift. He was sometimes portrayed as something of a village blacksmith with a bat in his hand but there was far more to him than that. To ping the ball to all parts of Brisbane against Merv Hughes, with nothing more than a floppy white hat for head protection, as he did while scoring a century there in 1986, demonstrated that. He was also one of the best fielders you could hope to see.
He was good in any position but brilliant in the slips. It was quite unnerving standing alongside him in the slips—he would be at second, me at third—because he stood much closer to the bat than was normal, as he hated to see the ball dropping short and he reckoned that even with less time to react, he could hold on to the chances that came his way (there was that self-belief again). Because of his advanced position, we then adopted a ‘W’ formation, with him ahead of both first and third slips. If I or anyone else at third had been in front of him, we would have been almost alongside the batsman!
The shortcomings in Ian Botham’s career have been well documented; he was unlucky during his brief stint as England captain to face the West Indies at a time when they were dominant, but his leadership style was not to everyone’s liking in any event. He wasn’t all things to all men. His record against the West Indies was modest, even allowing for their undeniable strength.
There were off-field controversies too. There was the admission of drug-taking and the consequent ban, and several scrapes splashed across tabloid newspapers. His might not have been the life of an angel, nor was he the ultimate role model. But by God, you would gamble on having him on your side.
Ian Botham Stats:
Test Matches:
Matches: 102
Innings: 161
Not Out: 6
Runs: 5,200
Batting Average: 33.54
Highest Score: 208
Fifties: 22
Sixes: 67
Fours: 621
Catches: 120
Centuries: 14
Wickets: 383
Best Bowling: 8 for 34 vs Pakistan
Best Match Bowling: 13 for 106
Bowling Average: 28.40
5 Wickets in an innings: 27
10 Wickets in a match: 4
Ian Botham in One-Day Internationals (ODIs):
Matches: 116
Innings: 106
Runs: 2,113
Highest Score: 79
Batting Average: 23.21
Centuries: 1
Catches: 9
Catches: 36
Wickets: 145
Bowling Average: 28.54
Best Bowling: 4 for 31
Indeed, Ian Botham was one of England’s best all-rounders and is largely recognized as one of the greatest cricketers in history, known for his superb batting, fast-medium pace bowling, and impact on the game, notably in Test cricket. Ian Botham will be remembered forever in the history of the game.
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