Ian Botham: the Power and the Glory

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was the world's most dangerous cricketing all-rounder, Sir Ian Botham became the archetypal modern sporting hero. Brash, brilliant and infuriating by turns, the backwoods boy from Somerset arrived at the dawn of sport's television age and made it his own.

Botham was a Boy's Own sort of cricketer.

He was an all-rounder, as capable of smashing violent centuries as he was of producing match-winning spells of vigorous fast bowling. He batted with his shoulders and could hit huge sixes. And he steamed in for long and exhausting bowling spells that could intimidate even the best players in the game.

He was a hail-fellow-well-met sort of player and often at the heart of dressing-room pranks, once leading team-mates to strip Geoffrey Boycott naked and decorate the taciturn Yorkshireman with shaving foam. It was at Botham's house that players on both sides of a Test series would gather for barbecues and heavy drinking sessions. He was the heart, as well as the engine, of most teams that he played for.

These qualities made him one of the best players in the world. He was also one of the most notorious: sacked as England captain in the middle of an Ashes series in 1981, variously tried for assault, suspended from cricket for smoking cannabis, accused of being racist and exposed by the tabloid press as having cheated on his long-suffering wife, Kath. Fighting and the booze got him into terrible trouble, and although he embraced his image as England's caveman-general, it was a role that at times came very near to consuming him.

In recent years, Botham has enjoyed great success as a commentator on Sky Sports's coverage of international cricket. He also walks very long distances for good causes, principally leukaemia research, and has raised over £12m for charity. He received a knighthood for this in 2007. "You've got to be very selfish," he has said of what it takes to become a successful sportsman, but there's more to the man than that.

Simon Wilde's biography chews over the evidence of a number of "Beefy" legends, including the exaggerated account of a young Botham's bar brawl with the former Australian captain Ian Chappell in 1977. Wilde, cricket correspondent for the Sunday Times, has spoken to many of those close to Botham and those who played alongside him. His judgement is sound and his storytelling pleasingly laconic: it leaves much of the work to the voices of the witnesses - as it should be.

The most acute Botham analyst of them all is Mike Brearley, who captained him early in his career and recalls that "he provoked, enlivened, amused, stimulated and irritated me". Wilde draws heavily on Brearley's assessment of Botham's motivations. This is probably astute, as Brearley now divides his time between journalism and professional psychoanalysis. His biggest achievement, however, is to place Botham at the heart of the sporting and social revolutions that took place in the early 1980s. As television and sport collided against a backdrop of social turmoil and class war, there was, Wilde argues, the opportunity for an entertainer such as Botham to become even bigger than the game.

When his Ashes-saving century at Head­ingley in 1981 was broadcast to a TV audience of millions, Botham at once became the best-known sportsman in Britain. Like the pictures of the ill-fated royal wedding that same summer, images of his performance in Leeds became iconic. He was hairy, big, brave and cheerful. He radiated brilliance and offered a glimpse of the impossible. Wilde has done well to capture his subject, and also to place him at the heart of his times. l

Dan Jones is a historian and a sports columnist for the London Evening Standard

Ian Botham: the Power and the Glory
Simon Wilde
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special