Thursday, 3 November 2016

Ian Botham: John O'Groats to Land's End

Looking back this week at Ian Botham's 1985 charity walk from John O'Groats to Land's End, in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. If you would like to donate to this great cause then please visit the following link:

https://bloodwise.org.uk/be

I'm not sure the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu ever knew that a journey of a thousand miles could begin with a single step on a cricket ball. When Ian Botham decided to use one of his size 10½ boots to prevent a boundary in the fourth Ashes Test at Headingley in August 1977, little did he know that it would change his life forever. Had he fielded it in the modern era, Botham may have employed a sliding stop. In 1977, it was more of a Sliding Doors moment.

Botham described the searing pain that immediately shot through his foot as he trod on the ball, and was later diagnosed with a broken metatarsal, or toe as it was plainly known back then. On his arrival at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, England's new star wandered innocently through a children's ward. Asking the specialist what was wrong with the children he saw playing board games, Botham was staggered to hear that they had leukaemia, and that some of them only had weeks to live.

"It was shattering news for me," Botham explains in Don't Tell Kath. "I simply couldn't take in what I was hearing." Giving £50 for the annual party on the ward was a start, yet Botham knew that more could be done. "Over the years, the seed that was planted that day grew and grew." Botham discovered more about the disease - a cancer which starts in blood-forming tissue - and knew that he could put his public status to good use in raising funds for the cause.

Ironically it would be on a walk in Ullswater with his wife Kath that Botham came up with his John O'Groats to Land's End plan. "I thought he was joking," Kath revealed after the conclusion of Botham's end to end walk. She should have known better. In April 1985 Botham announced that he would be tackling the end to end challenge in October/November, and stated his aims: "If we can reach the £100,000 target it will be one of the happiest moments of my life."

1985 turned out to be yet another crazy year in the story of Ian Botham. After a self-imposed winter exile from the successful England tour to India, the all-rounder returned to help England win the Ashes back, his 31 wickets at 27.58, 250 runs at 31.25, and stunning catches, proving that he remained a central cog of the national team. Still emptying bars when he strode to the crease, Botham smashed 105 sixes in all forms of cricket during 1985, and would make headlines on and off the square from day one of the new year.

There would be the dramatic breaking news on January 1 that cannabis had been found in Botham's house; the bust-up with umpire Alan Whitehead during the third Ashes Test; his resignation as captain of Somerset; his new deal at the county, making him the highest paid cricketer in the country. Sporting his new blond mullet, Botham was pure box office, a Tabloid dream. New agent Tim Hudson recognised this, and would later make a doomed attempt to crack Hollywood with his client. Crazy times indeed.

But come the autumn of 1985, the majority of the publicity created by Botham was positive, as he set off on his march from one end of Great Britain to the other. Originally scheduled to run from October 26 to November 25, Botham admits to a certain amount of naivety when it came to planning and carrying out the walk. "There's the road, walk on it until you get to the other end," was Botham's theory, and after dipping his toes into the harbour water at John O'Groats, the journey into the unknown commenced. 

There would be a number of celebrities dotted along the walk, from John Conteh to Jimmy Greaves, Elton John to Max Boyce. Yet there would be three men who would be with Botham every step of the way, becoming "prisoners of the walk" to use the expression coined by the England all-rounder. John Border, brother of Allan, had originally gone to Scotland for some golf and fishing, but agreed with Botham to give the walk a bash; Phil Rance, a hairdresser from Manchester, had lost his father to leukaemia; and the story of Daily Mirror sports writer Chris Lander turned from a few paragraphs into an epic.

Originally sent to Scotland by the Daily Mirror to cover a "few faltering steps", Lander, or Crash as he was known to his friends, became more and more embroiled in the walk, constantly egged on by Botham to firstly see off a rival journalist from The Sun (Alisdair Ross), and then cajoled into completing the whole trek. Having driven up to John O' Groats to cover the start of Botham's walk, it would be 36 days before Lander returned to pick up his vehicle. Lander may have been 16lbs lighter around the waist, but a car parking bill for his stay in John O'Groats piled on the pounds.

If any of the walking prisoners were unaware of the task ahead then the first few days of the walk were definitely a wake-up call. Daily Mirror journalist Michael McCarthy explained how he attempted to complete the 32-mile first leg from John O'Groats to Lybster: "I kept up with him for 28 of the 32 miles on the first stage of his epic walk, then somewhere in my body a whistle blew and my legs came out on strike. Imagine the pace you would employ if you're desperate to get to a toilet 200 yards away but you don't want to appear undignified by actually running."

Day two from Lybster to Brora proved damaging to Botham and his men. Deciding to run parts of the 35-mile hilly leg, Botham admitted that he had tackled the route too aggressively and had developed incredible pains in his shins due to this. He was not the only one to suffer. Lander's knees had swollen to twice their normal size, with the team physio instructing him to take no further part in the walk. Botham was also given a firm warning: "Ease up or you'll never make it to Land's End."

The pain continued for Lander. A temperature of 103°F on days three and four, along with dehydration, saw the writer sent to bed early after each stage, although Botham was determined to get his friend to the end. At the 100 mile mark, Botham left a bottle of Scotch for Lander on the side of the road with a note reading: "Only 800 miles to go. Man or mouse?" Lander readjusted his goals, setting himself the target of reaching England, but by the time this was achieved on day 16, Lander had become far too involved to drop out.

On crossing the border, the group were greeted with glasses of Champagne, and a piper, as the success of the walk became apparent to everyone. The great publicity behind the event, involving regular BBC Breakfast Time broadcasts with Frank Bough and Selina Scott, along with the generosity of the Scottish public had seen £110,000 collected before the border had been crossed, already £10,000 over the original target. "If it goes on like this, we'll be heading for the £1 million mark," stated an elated Botham. He was not wrong.

The public couldn't get enough of the walk. "We were going to the people. they did not have to come to us," Botham noted in Ian Botham: My Illustrated Life, and the many stories recalled are heartwarming.

Tales of lorry drivers tooting their horns and then stopping off on their return journeys with money collected; two old ladies running from their bungalows in the Highlands to give £40 to the cause; a Biggles-style biplane dropping an £80 bomb in a bag; and a middle-aged woman giving her wedding ring to Botham, saying that her husband had died of leukaemia six weeks before, and driving off before Botham could protest. The wedding ring raised £1,000 in an auction.

There would be more cause for celebration as the walk moved through the north west of England. Botham was contacted at 6.30am on November 13 by his mother-in-law, informing him that Kath had given birth to their third child. "I knew he couldn't be there, and I quite accepted it was for an excellent cause," Kath revealed. At the end of the day, Botham was taken in a chauffeur driven Daimler from Burnley to Doncaster, and introduced to his new daughter (Becky). He may have fallen asleep at his wife's bedside, but this was forgivable under the circumstances.

The bandwagon rolled on as the days progressed, Botham stating that each village they walked through was seemingly trying to outdo their neighbour. In Bristol a total of £40,000 was raised, in Taunton £26,000. "It's the people giving their 20p and 50p, their fivers and their tenners, who matter," Botham said. "It's what keeps us putting one foot in front of the other when all we want to do is collapse into a hot bath and forget everything."

Lander described the daily routine in one of his many insider articles. An alarm call at 6am every morning; liniment spirits applied to calves; Vaseline on feet; blisters covered with pads and plasters; soft soap put in shoes, causing bubbles to foam up if their feet got wet. Through it all, Botham would be there driving them on: "Come on legs, start walking. Feel the pain, pain is fun."

There were a few unfortunate incidents to report of as the walk neared the conclusion. A journalist called Simon Worthington accused the group of smoking dope on the walk, which would have been some achievement seeing as Botham and co had police escorts with them constantly. And in Bodmin Moor, Botham struck a police officer, after the police threatened to have Rance pulled off the walk, due to the fact that he was struggling over a mile behind. Fortunately, both Botham and the officer apologised to each other and moved on, though this did not stop a couple of Conservative MPs sticking their oars in, asking for charges to be pressed.

This nonsense aside, the walk was an undoubted success. As Botham, Lander, Border and Rance arrived in Land's End, dressed in top hats and tails, the group had reached their destination after 35 days of pounding the roads of Scotland and England, greeted by a huge crowd that broke out into a rendition of For He's A Jolly Good Fellow. As the men plunged into the Atlantic, the enormity of their achievement and the success of the walk hit home.

The 874-mile walk, or 1,133 miles according to Ian Botham: My Illustrated Life, had raised over £400,000, but this wasn't the end. A 12-mile lap of honour in London saw £30,000 added to the total, and as Botham arrived at Great Ormond Street Hospital, the donations continued to roll in. Douglas Osborne, the Chief Executive of Leukaemia Research between 1989-2007, stated that the total raised was over £1.1 million, with the Leukaemia Research telephone line quite literally exploding due to the floods of calls coming in.

Botham admitted to some post-walk blues after the dust had settled. After all, it had dominated his life for a month, and there was a feeling of emptiness, which Botham acknowledges has set in after all of his subsequent walks. Soon he would have to turn his attentions to England's tour of the Caribbean. Walking from John O'Groats to Land's End must have felt like a picnic compared to facing Marshall, Patterson, Garner, Holding and Walsh.

In 2010 I had the pleasure of walking with one of my great sporting heroes. Well, that's partly true. I attempted to keep up with Beefy on his Great Forget-Me-Not Walk in Milton Keynes, but as many discovered, including Darren Gough, this wasn't possible. Still, I got to meet him later in the day (see my Twitter profile photo), and thanked him for all that he has achieved on and off the pitch. A quite brilliant day (for me at least).

It's hardly surprising that Beefy was knighted in 2007. His cricketing accomplishments were impressive enough, but his charitable work, which has raised over £13 million, is phenomenal. And to think, it all started because the great man trod on a cricket ball in 1977.

"When first I started pounding those roads there was roughly a 20 percent chance of survival from the disease but now, in some cases, that has risen to 80 percent," Botham proudly said in Don't Tell Kath. 383 Test wickets and over 5,000 runs is one thing, but some figures are even more impressive than that.

1 comment:

  1. Another great read, i remember the tabloid squeals of rage well. Can't stand cricket but Botham was one of those figures who transcended his sport. Keep up the good work!

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