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The Elvis of golf

Seve Ballesteros was the finest golfer of his generation and the most inspiring figure I ever saw play the game. I hesitate in using the past tense, as Ballesteros isn't dead, even if he is seriously ill. But he departed this world as a professional golfer a long time ago, which is why so many of us talk of him as if he were gone. The 51-year-old Spaniard is, as I write, recovering from two operations to remove a tumour from his brain at a Madrid hospital. The second, a "decompressive craniectomy", involved excising a section of skull. The prognosis is not encouraging.

Between 1979, when he won his first major championship, the British Open, and 1988, when he claimed his last (another Open), Ballesteros was untouchable. He was a golfer of sublime skill and superb showmanship, capable of conjuring tricks with his clubs. He looked like Elvis, played with more swagger than Arnold Palmer, and was followed around the course by a huge fan base and brooding clouds, which loomed over his head, ready to unleash a deluge of bad feeling whenever his mood darkened, as it nearly always did when things went wrong. He dared to be different, and we loved him for it.

Growing up in the fishing village of Pedreña, near Santander, the young Seve learned to play using stones for balls and sticks, which he cut to length and whittled to a point before forcing into the hosel of a rusty old three-iron head. He arrived as an international golfer at the age of 19, when he just missed out on winning the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale. His first major three years later was followed swiftly by two US Masters titles. But it was in Britain where he became a hero. Seve epitomised the bullish, swashbuckling British links champion. "There wasn't a shot he couldn't play," says his old caddy Pete Coleman. "He could be an evil son of a bitch, but everyone wanted to watch him, because in 18 holes you would always get a touch of genius."

He was never unbeatable; he didn't have the patience or desire to grind out results when he was playing poorly, as Tiger Woods can. But he was a fearless shot-maker.

I first saw him play on the day he confirmed his place among the greats: at the final round of the 1984 Open at St Andrews. His joy that day became ingrained as an iconic image - the 27-year-old, a majestic matador in navy blue, punching the air as the winning putt dropped.

His decline, when it came, was sad and rapid. Unlike his peers and old adversaries Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer who, to varying degrees, continue to play competitively, Seve lost what it took before he was even 40. When we met in 2003 he told me that the deterioration in his game was "100 per cent physical". He blamed his decline on arthritis that had its roots in an old childhood boxing injury. Golf is a game of confidence, instinct and willpower. All of these deserted Ballesteros.

He raged against his own decline, as if an inexplicable wrong had been done to him. His marriage ended. He continued to miss cuts. He fiddled with his technique. To watch him play during these last years was in many ways to watch a broken man. But that image of him in his younger days, dressed in blue and punching the air on the final day at St Andrews, will remain forever inviolate.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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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