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Bite-sized briefing: world

The Pakistani army continues its ground assault on the militant stronghold of South Waziristan, facing fierce resistance from the Taliban. Up to 100,000 civilians have fled the conflict zone. At least eight people died in a retaliation suicide attack on the International Islamic University in Islamabad. All schools and universities have been closed.

Iran has accused "the Great Satan America and its ally Britain" of supporting Sunni terrorist group Jundullah, after a suicide attack in the south-east of the country killed 42 people, including six senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. Britain and the US dismissed the claims.

Talks between Iran and world powers on a uranium enrichment deal stalled on the second day, when Iran suddenly announced that it would not deal directly with France, accusing it of reneging on contracts to deliver nuclear materials in the past. Talks later resumed.

Voters in Niger are electing new MPs after President Mamadou Tandja dissolved parliament in May for rejecting his bid to extend his stay in power. West Africa's trade grouping Ecowas has suspended Niger in response.

Thirty-four Kurdish separatist guerrillas surrendered to the Turkish army after crossing the border from their camp in Iraq. It's a symbolic gesture of rebel support for government plans to broaden Kurdish rights.

In Rio de Janeiro, 21 people died during two days of gang warfare which followed the death of three policemen when a police helicopter was shot down on 17 October. The violence has revived concerns over Rio's suitability to host the Olympic Games in 2016.

Iceland says it has come to a new agreement over the repayment of £3bn to the governments of the Netherlands and the UK, which paid the money out to the 400,000 savers affected when Icesave collapsed last year. Reykjavik hopes the agreement might ease the financial pressure it is under in the long term.

The Australian defence minister, John Faulkner, has asked for recommendations on how to complete operations in Afghanistan as early as possible, in the clearest signal so far that Australia may withdraw its 1,500 troops sooner than expected.

Somali pirates have hijacked a Chinese cargo ship with 25 crew on board. The De Xin Hai was seized between the Seychelles and Maldives, 700 miles east of Somalia's coast. China pledged an "all-out" rescue attempt.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, faces a run-off against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, after a UN-backed panel said there was clear evidence of fraud in the first round of August's presidential elections. It will take place on 7 November.

Kyrgyzstan's government has announced its resignation in the wake of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's call for sweeping reforms to increase
his own power.

Roman Polanski lost his appeal to be released on bail from a Swiss jail. The decision came as the film director faced possible extradition to the US over his 1977 conviction for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.

The US Senate has voted to continue to allow Guantanamo Bay inmates to be tried on US soil, marking a modest victory in President Obama's efforts to close the camp.

Dozens of ethnic Uighurs have disappeared since being detained in the wake of riots in China's Xinjiang region, according to Human Rights Watch. The riots in early July left nearly 200 people dead.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State