HE’S BEEN a familiar figure on the Melbourne cricket scene for more than 40 years but now one of the great all-rounders is putting runs on the board in another enjoyable way, says Chief Writer RON REED:
IAN Botham the cricketer – Sir Ian to you – we all know, in my case for a very long time. We first met in in the summer of 1976-77 when he and another promising young county player named Graeme Stevenson arrived in Melbourne on a scholarship to get some experience. As well as playing at District level with the University club, they turned out a few times for the Plastic XI, a mid-week team I captained, made up mostly of League footballers, sports journalists and club cricketers of every conceivable standard. That was the fun of it – we had more than a dozen Test players past, present and future playing alongside some blokes who barely knew which end to hold the bat. Two of these luminaries, Botham and John Emburey, went on to captain England and another, Dean Jones, has just been inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, so it wasn’t a bad team sometimes. Both Botham and Emburey are still very regular visitors to Melbourne – Embers and his Melbourne-born wife spend part of every summer here – so it is always pleasing to catch up with them again.
This we were able to do on Monday night, sharing a table with Sir Ian at a dinner for the Lord’s Taverners, a society of cricket lovers who raise money for underprivileged or handicapped people who are also part of the noble old game’s “family.” Yes, Ian Botham the cricketer turned up – but so did another version of him with whom we are less familiar: Ian Botham the wine buff. He now has his own label, featuring Australian grapes, red and white, and embracing a wide range of styles and price points from cheap BBQ quaffers to more sophisticated drops that will set you back well over three figures. Some research was in order, of course, and I wish to report that they’re all good quality.
Sir Ian and the product of the vine go back a very long way and he had an expert coach. Now 63, he was 16 or 17 when he was introduced to it by the celebrated cricket and wine writer and commentator John Arlott, a famously prolific consumer of French reds – he would always bring at least two bottles to the press box every working day and sip through them while producing flawlessly evocative written and verbal prose. “I was a willing participant,” Botham told the Taverners.
Eventually the pair lived not far from each other at Alderney in the Channel Islands and Botham’s phone would ring at precisely six minutes past nine every morning – “You could set your clock by it” – and it would be Arlott asking in his distinctive west country burr: “Ian, what time are you coming?” “What time would you like me, John?” “As soon as possible – and bring your thirst!” By the time he got there, Arlott would have taken his daily delivery of anywhere between six and 36 bottles that winemakers had sent for him to review, and would have earmarked six for tasting that morning. “There was never a spittoon.” After lunch Botham would leave him to it but return at 4pm to drive him to one or more of the island’s pubs, where there would always be a tray waiting “with a large brandy for him and glass of red for me”.
Their very close friendship ended when his mentor died at 77 in 1991. Ever since then, on the anniversary of his death Botham visits their old local, the Rose & Crown pub, and asks Basil the landlord for his best bottle of red, which he takes to Arlott’s grave and sits there reminiscing aloud to himself about the times they spent together. “People must think I’m stark raving mad,” he said. He then leaves the cork beside the headstone. “There must be a thousand corks there now,” he laughed.
The wine business is now the main priority in Botham’s busy life. Since retiring as a player he has worked mainly as a highly-regarded TV commentator but here’s a news flash delivered quietly around our table – the coming Ashes series is almost certain to be his last behind the microphone. He will be missed because he has a witty, entertaining style that does not rely on harking back “to my day” and which is both informative and objectively opinionated.
Despite a few narks going on the record over the years to insist that he was over-rated, his playing record is, of course, formidable – 101 Tests for 5,200 runs at 33.5 and a then record 383 wickets at 28.4 plus 102 catches . But he has no discernible tickets on himself, declining even to identify which part of the game’s three arts he mastered best. “I just had a low boredom threshold so my captains knew they had to keep me occupied doing something – batting was fun, I always wanted to bowl and I fielded where the action was, in the slips,” he said. What he is proud of is his charity work, which is what he was knighted for, not cricket, he says. That began with 12 long-distance walks, firstly the length of Great Britain and later other arduous assignments elsewhere. That was prompted by a visit to a hospital where he met four kids battling leukemia, a disease he knew nothing about. When he returned to the hospital days later, all four had died. The result has been many millions of pounds raised for research into the deadly affliction – and a world-wide recognition that while he might have once been a wild child whose baroque lifestyle on cricket tours and elsewhere made him tabloid fodder long before Shane Warne came along and turned that sort of thing into an art form, there is a reason why “Beefy” to his fans and “Both” to his mates is now entitled to be addressed as “Sir”. Not that it’s necessary when you ask him to pass the red.