Weekly Briefing

Indonesia: disasters

Separated by 800 miles but within less than 24 hours of each other, the joint force of Indonesia's two most recent natural disasters has been severe and the full death toll is as yet unknown. At least 25 of the 5,000 people living on or around the volcano Mount Merapi in Java were killed by heat and ash after it erupted on 26 October. Although many residents have been evacuated, others are refusing to leave. Meanwhile, a tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake (more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in January), has killed more than 270 people on Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. Hundreds more remain missing.

Merapi is the most volatile volcano in a country prone to both geological and political instability. The worst of the eruption seems to have passed, but the clean-up has barely begun.

Burma: democracy

“We'll be expecting that this election will be a fair one, a credible one and an inclusive one," said the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Bangkok before Burma's 7 November general election - its first in 20 years. With more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma - including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest house arrest is due to end on 13 November - the fairness odds don't look good. But Ban insisted: "It is not too late."

Anti-junta activists and Burmese migrants protesting in Bangkok were less convinced. Khin Omar of the Burma Partnership argues that, without the release of prisoners, an end to military attacks and a review of the constitution, the elections "will not bring any substantial positive change to the country but shame".

Côte d'Ivoire: elections

Three years after President Laurent Gbagbo's mandate expired, and following six postponements, Côte d'Ivoire was finally due to go to the polls on 31 October, with the results to be announced on 10 November. An additional 500 UN security personnel have been flown in to join the 8,650 already present in the country and, reporting that at least 55,000 fraudulent names have been removed from the voting register, President Gbagbo has declared himself "a happy man", ready to face the poll.

Indeed, there is plenty for him to be happy about: not only is he the likely winner, a fair and functional election will signal a new phase in the country's journey back to the stability for which it was once known, before the popular uprising of 2000 and the ensuing civil war.

Sweden: anti-far right

Counterbalancing the worrying rise of far-right groups across Europe, Tarek Alkhatib - a doctor who heads a clinic in Stockholm - has formed a new political party in reaction to the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD). The SD party gained its first ever seats in parliament in early October
and has described Islam as the biggest threat to Europe since the Second World War, calling for drastic cuts in immigration.

Alkhatib founded his party, Svartskalledemokraterna, after seeing the 20-seat gain by SD as a "clear warning signal" that immigrants must "defend ourselves through greater political activity". Others seem to agree. The party, he says, gained 1,000 members within days.

US: midterm madness

What does it say about the US that a week before the midterm elections, an online poll found "the most influential man in the country" to be Jon Stewart, with Barack Obama at number 21? One can only hope his later appearance on The Daily Show helped the president claw back some respect.

It couldn't be less successful than Obama's recent visit to Rhode Island. He was welcomed by a live radio announcement by the local Democrat candidate for governor, Frank T Caprio. The president, Caprio said, could "take his endorsement [which Caprio has not got] and really shove it".

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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