Ian Botham celebrates the wicket of Javed Miandad
© PA Photos

Hate to Love

The Botham attraction

Can a Pakistani hold anything but outright hate for Sir Ian?

Imran Yusuf

I do not hate to love Ian Botham. Rather, I have made the journey from hating him to loving him - a rare, perhaps unique, journey for someone of Pakistani origin. If a Pakistani has any sort of journey at all with "Beefy", it is usually from hate to deeper hate, with a pit stop at severe contempt.

This is baffling, given that for much of his life he has sported a ridiculous moustache and attracted a fair share of controversy. One would think that Pakistanis would embrace him as one of their own, with the added bonus of fair skin.

Not so, because when Pakistanis think of Botham, two stories usually come to mind. There is Sir Ian's un-knightly comment that Pakistan was "the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid". And then there is the image of Beefy outside the High Court - looking like a sixth-form rugby player who has just been reprimanded by the headmaster for a jocular misdemeanour on tour - having lost a libel case to Imran Khan.

These incidents, and a general unexamined sense of Botham being the adversary of Pakistanis in some way, made me inherit the hatred for Botham that seemed ingrained in fellow fans.

Though he played the game with incredible skill, Botham was a link to cricket's amateur side, as if he took the ethos and hurly burly of English village cricket and applied to it international superstardom

Yet I no longer feel this way. I probably just grew out of it. Like many inherited prejudices, the first time I looked at it fully in the face, it just went up in a puff like the smoke from one of Sir Ian's alleged mid-season joints.

These days when it comes to Botham and Pakistan, I prefer to dwell on a different occasion: him celebrating his 50th birthday in Faisalabad during England's tour in 2005. I remember his co-commentators delighting in the irony of the great bon viveur bringing up his big five-oh in a city known only for its textile manufacturing. (Rumour has it, though, that he dashed off to Lahore or Karachi on the final evening of the Test in order to celebrate in a manner closer to his usual style. A needless escape: if he had made a decent friend in Faisalabad, I am sure he could have procured Johnny Walker Black Label identical to that available in the bigger cities.)

On air, Botham did not curse the gods, but revelled in the humour of the situation. He mostly seems to do this, actually: despite his occasional lapse into a sourpuss, the essence of Sir Ian's likeability is the fun and energy he brings to the table, to the field, to the airwaves. As a commentator he loves the banter, sure, but he also regularly demonstrates a subtle and penetrative wit. Compare this to that high priest of humourlessness, his old nemesis Imran, and we see the greatness of Sir Ian emerge. He was - he is - a tremendous character, a massive personality and life force for the game of cricket, and for this reason Beefy should only, can only, be loved. Even if you hate to do so.

Keep walking, Sir Ian

Keep walking, Sir Ian © Getty Images

To relive the cricketing late 1970s and early '80s is to remember the great era of allrounders. This is not the place to debate who was the best, but footage of Botham - spurred on by what Richard Hadlee had done in New Zealand, envious of Kapil Dev's exploits from India, annoyed after poring over the papers for Imran's latest figures in Pakistan - is to see cricket in full flight. There was an artful beauty to these other cricketers just mentioned, a symmetry of form in their batting and bowling. But Botham was a force of nature. Though he played the game with incredible skill, he was a link to cricket's amateur side, as if he took the ethos and hurly burly of English village cricket and applied to it international superstardom.

This is not a hark back, not a yearning for unreconstructed maleness to once again charge across our cricket fields. This is a remembrance of a time when personalities, and bodies, were not sculpted. When reputations were not managed. When a sense of players' cunning and power stemmed not from bulgy bats and laptops but from an animal sense of the moment, a lion's sniff that the hunt was on. Not bad for someone who spent half his career hungover.

And it was undoubtedly a great career. Botham's 383-strong wicket-taking record for England was only broken by James Anderson in 2015. As a batsman, a Test average in the 30s at a time of all-time bowling greats (and lots of matches against West Indies) points to an ability beyond the thrilling, series-turning knocks of the '81 Ashes.

For much of his life, Botham has sported a ridiculous moustache and attracted a fair share of controversy. One would think that Pakistanis would embrace him as one of their own

But even if I hadn't rated him as an allrounder, even if I'd been stung permanently by his mother-in-law comment (although, thinking about it, my own mother-in-law lives in Pakistan), even if I'd been outraged by the nude pic posted on his Twitter feed (Sir Ian has said it was the result of a hack - you see, even the Russians hate to love him), even if I'd thought he was a big man acting out Little Englander fantasies through his vociferous support for Brexit, even if I'd wrinkled my nose at his suggestion that Pakistan should be banned from international cricket until they got their act together following the spot-fixing scandal in 2010, my journey from hate to love would have been inevitable.

As should yours.

For this is a man who has raised over £25 million for charity through his legendary walks. Again, a comparison with Imran is telling. He too has done philanthropic wonders. The cancer hospitals in his mother's name have saved and improved hundreds of thousands of lives. But whereas Imran couldn't stop there - his ego propelled him to reach for the big game of politics - Sir Ian is merely content to go big-game-fishing.

I had once seen Sir Ian as an oaf and a bully, a flag-bearer for an Englishness that might exclude people like me. I now urge him to walk on.

Imran Yusuf is a writer based in Karachi

 

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