Remarks on IPL during MCC lecture show Ian Botham still has rebellious streak

Former England captain's remarks about IPL should not overshadow an otherwise enjoyable lecture, writes Osman Samiuddin

Former England cricketer Ian Botham during the one-day international match between England and Sri Lanka at Lord's Cricket Ground on May 31, 2014, in London. Gareth Copley / Getty Images
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It gets easier to forget the player that Ian Botham embodied at his peak, or even the personality.

I first saw him play Pakistan on their 1987 tour of England. His powers had drained considerably by then – he managed seven wickets, one fifty and three catches in five Tests – but he could still create moments from nothing.

At Edgbaston in the fourth Test, as an example, meandering to a draw on the final morning, he conjured a wonderful mini-spell of swing bowling that almost poleaxed Pakistan. He only took two wickets, including a reflex return catch tinged with genius, but he scared the life out of Pakistan’s batting with the swing.

He was no athlete, not with the paunch he was then carrying. But his mullet, blonde and streaky, suggested he could also be a member of a big-hair, soft-rock monstrosity. That was the selling point, even as my uncles and others around me tut-tutted that Botham was ignorant, if not possibly racist.

By then, his persona had already begun to overshadow his game, though occasionally that was also what sustained his cricket. His personality alone could turn a game. But he was more about the dope busts, the tabloid tell-alls and the on-field scrapes.

Since he left the game, he has become even less about the player he was. He is now a Knight and a national monument. He is also a commentator and a voice of the game, whose views have come to matter.

So it was obvious that when he put forward the opinion that the Indian Premier League (IPL) should cease to exist because it harms cricket in the long-term, it was bound to stir matters. Immediately, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) snapped back.

Not only did Botham have his facts wrong about boards not being paid for letting their players go to the IPL (they are), the BCCI also reminded us that Botham was among the men happily photographed alongside Allen Stanford in 2008, when the now-disgraced Texas financier sought to embed himself in English cricket (he was).

There is no denying that Botham's thoughts, delivered at the MCC's annual Spirit of Cricket lecture, were wrong-headed. Banishing the IPL will not end corruption in the game, which, by the way, happens at every level of televised cricket.

The IPL is here. If it does go, it will do so only because of the greed of those who run it, not the wishes of former players.

But that little detour was unfortunate, because it lasted all of a minute and yet took all the heat and focus off what was an enjoyable lecture of more than 30 minutes.

It was not momentous, which is what the audiences have come to expect following the weightiness of Desmond Tutu’s address in 2008 and Kumar Sangakkara’s speech in 2011.

That is fine, though. Not every lecture need be an epic launching pad for a later entry into statesmanship, although given his speeches in recent days as a political leader, it is a surprise that Imran Khan’s 2010 lecture was so flat.

Botham’s was a more personal, narrower reflection on what the game has meant to him. Mostly, it meant something because of his relationships with those who shaped and shared his career; his enduring bromance with Viv Richards, as one instance.

But overlooked in his dig at the BCCI and the IPL were his critiques of the state of cricket in his own country. More than anything, his lecture was a lament about a world gone and the dwindling significance of his game in England.

He began, in fact, with a nice paen to sport itself, but the address quickly turned to a plea to the British education system: less focus on exams, more sport.

There was a bouncer at David Cameron, the United Kingdom prime minister, for not having done anything about sport in schools, despite having told Botham that he would. Botham’s bouncers were for showboating, though. Cameron is lucky it was not an outswinger.

Maybe it was the entire idea, rather than the specific substance, that embellished its appeal, as was the case with the late Tony Greig’s appearance a few years ago.

Botham chuckled himself at the thought of an anti-establishment man, now in a suit and tie and reading glasses, speaking at the MCC. That was a valuable glimpse into his earliest days, when appointing him captain was a radical move, breaking a tradition of it being given to Oxbridge toffs.

That did not work, at least in some part because he and the establishment just could not get along.

Some of that is still in him, as evidenced when he called for the Ashes urn to remain with whoever wins the Ashes (admittedly, that is just common sense rather than rebellion). Maybe it is in that light that we view his call to scrap the IPL.

That is the new establishment now. Botham just wants to tear it down.

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