Weekly Briefing

Libya: UN banned

There are about 9,000 refugees in Libya and 3,700 asylum-seekers. But the country has no formal system for dealing with these migrants, most of whom come from Palestine and Iraq (among others from Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa). The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has monitored the situation since 1991 - but as of 8 June, the agency is banned from the country.

The Libyan foreign ministry has said that it considers the agency's presence in the country illegal, as it is not bound by a UN convention. The expulsion may be linked to the disparity between Libya's view - that the majority of refugees are economic migrants - and that of the UNHCR.

Pakistan: comebacks

Pervez Musharraf: Pakistan's president for nine years, in exile for the past two and a man with his eye on a return to power. On 8 June, his new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), was launched by his supporters with a stated aim of resolving "the crises facing Pakistan". "Pervez Musharraf is still one of the most popular men in Pakistan," argued Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's former chief aide.

But if the ex-president returns, he will face criminal charges, including culpability for the death of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. But his followers insist that he was not responsible and the APML claim support from as yet unnamed "unions, student organisations and political figures".

Such claims will not be tested for some time. Musharraf says he will return when the date of the next election is announced, but Pakistanis are not expected to go to the polls until 2013.

Zimbabwe: free media

"Everyday news for everyday people" - the strapline for Zimbabwe's NewsDay - is less a description than a mission statement. On 4 June, NewsDay became the country's first independent paper since 2003 - competing with the state-owned Herald. NewsDay's publisher, Trevor Ncube, has vowed to resist "hate, divisiveness, abhorrent propaganda and personality cults". The first edition steered clear of the most controversial issues, covering the conviction of five Zanu-PF thugs, and the central bank's plan to retrench 3,000 staff. But employees were still arrested while distributing the paper, for causing a traffic jam.

NewsDay will soon have a competitor: the Daily News. But not yet. Its management is reportedly still sifting through the 1,800 job applications it has received for the 80 jobs available.

Netherlands: far right

As the Netherlands went to the polls on 9 June, Geert Wilders - the charming leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which proposes fighting the country's "Islamisation" with such inspired measures as a tax on headscarves - has been out and about again. As voting began, his party expected
a major increase to its vote share.

Wilders's campaign was quite a muted one. His anti-immigration stance has been overshadowed by economic worries and he has been criticised by his party members for a lack of democratic decision-making. But he found time to blame immigrants for Dutch financial woes, claiming they
cost the Netherlands $8bn.

US: blunders

"It did seem a good idea at the time," said Alan Thompson, Australia's parliamentary services secretary, of the commemorative mugs celebrating Barack Obama's visit to Canberra. The souvenirs were to be sold in the Parliament House gift shop. Sadly, not only had the US president's name been misspelled - with an extra R - but the Gulf of Mexico oil spill had led the president to cancel his visit.

Still, the White House should understand. On 5 June, Hillary (with two Ls) Clinton sent the Queen a birthday greeting from the president - seven days early. "Better a week early than a week late," offered the US state department's spokesman.

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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