x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Botham suffered but spread cheer

Sir Ian Botham was the first rock 'n' roll cricketer: a Mick Jagger in cricket whites.

Sir Ian Botham was the first rock 'n' roll cricketer: a Mick Jagger in cricket whites. When not filling the sports sections with his deeds of derring-do, there he was on the front pages with lurid headlines recounting drugs or arguments while under the influence of alcohol. Botham never claimed to come without flaws. A few years ago I joined him on the North Inch at Perth on a wet and windy October morning with the icy rain running down his grinning features when I quickly discovered that his heart is as big as his legend.

It was day 10 of a "John O'Groats to Land's End" walk in aid of Leukaemia Research and he was wrapped up under more layers of clothing than the Scott of the Antarctic, the famous British explorer Robert. Ahead lay the long and winding road to Dunfermline, a trek of 26 miles. Forget his previous figures - 14 Test centuries, 383 wickets - and consider the scoreboard that awaited Botham's arrival in Cornwall at the end of his latest trek on behalf of his favourite charity: 870 miles, a marathon a day for 34 days, 240 hours of torture.

So why do it? At the age of 43 (as he was then) and as one of the most famous celebrities in the UK, would a 30-minute television appeal not achieve precisely the same aim? "No," said Botham, striding out through morning rain and rush-hour in Perth to an accompanying symphony of car horns, applause and shouts of "Good luck, son". "A lot of people make TV appeals, which is great, but when you do something like this, I think it draws more attention to what you're trying to achieve. People not only see you giving up your time, they also see you going through agonies. I don't think it's enough to sit back in a comfortable chair saying 'please give money to Leukaemia Research, it's a great cause'. People know it's a great cause. They have to see me suffer."

Botham played cricket with the same attitude: whenever England needed a quickfire century or were desperate to capture a wicket or three, then he was the man to whom they turned. Who can ever forget the events in the Third Ashes Test against Australia at Headingly in 1981. Botham, who had been replaced by Mike Brearley after the second Test, strode out to the wicket as a dispirited England were toiling at 105 for five with a humiliating innings defeat beckoning.

An unbeaten thrash of 149 runs later - an innings rated as the fourth best in history by Wisden - it was the Australians who were unravelling. The following day Bob Willis took eight for 43 to complete an improbable victory. Largely overlooked, because of his heroics at Headingley, was his performance in the second Test against the touring Pakistan at Trent Bridge three years earlier. After smashing 108 in England's first outing, exactly on this day 31 years ago, he became the first player to score a century and take eight wickets in an innings when he helped skittle out the tourists for 139 with figures of eight for 34.

After his team's innings and 120 run defeat, the Pakistan captain Wasim Bari said: "I have never seen a ball swing so much in bright sunshine. Botham was unplayable. What a magnificent cricketer this man is." And what a magnificent man this cricketer is. Knighted in 2007 for his fund-raising towards fighting leukaemia, Botham wears his huge heart on his sleeve. "The nicest things about walking hundreds and hundreds of miles is when someone aged around 20 joins in for a section and explains that, as a child, he was one of the people we helped," he says.

Take a bow, Sir Beefy. @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae