Thursday 29 July 2021

1986: Botham's glorious comeback

"Blimey, Beef. Who writes your scripts?" The question asked by Graham Gooch on Thursday August 21 to Ian Botham was a valid one. After all, it was barely believable that a man making his comeback to Test match cricket after a ban would take a wicket with his first ball. But Ian Botham was no ordinary man.

1986 had been a turbulent year in the life of Botham. As the tabloid press circulated around him in the Caribbean attempting to uncover details of his activities away from cricket, on the field things were hardly going smoothly. Hammered 5-0 against the mighty West Indies, the tour ended with Botham suffering at the hands of his great mate Viv Richards, as England's all-rounder tried in vain to equal Dennis Lillee's record for most Test wickets taken.

For long parts of the English summer, it seemed that Botham's quest to surpass Lillee would have to wait until the winter at the very least. When a Mail on Sunday article in March 1984 accused Botham of smoking cannabis on England's ill-fated tour of New Zealand in 1983/84, he hit back, claiming that he had never smoked the drug in his life. It would prove a costly error.

Forced to back down, Botham admitted in a Mail on Sunday piece on May 18, 1986, that he had in fact "smoked pot", a revelation that would lead to the Test and County Cricket Board banning him from the sport for 63 days. Unable to play until August 1, Botham's chances of featuring in the Test series against New Zealand appeared slim.

A fund-raising event in Manchester during Botham's ban did little to help his cause. Referring to the England selectors as "gin-slinging dodderers", Botham had again made headlines of the wrong sort. Fortunately for Botham, the old adage of being a better player when you are out of the team proved true. In his absence, England were in a right state.

During the series defeat to India in the first part of the summer, the captaincy baton passed from David Gower to Mike Gatting, but a loss in the second Test of the New Zealand series saw England needing a win at the Oval to get anything out of a miserable summer. Desperate for inspiration, the selectors put their gripes (and gins) aside and turned to Botham.

Botham's return for Somerset had been spectacular with bat in hand. A century off 65 balls in a County Championship match against Worcestershire was then followed up by a blazing 175 not out - 13 sixes and 12 fours during the 116-ball innings - in a Sunday League match against Northamptonshire. Yet a bowling average of 131.5 since his return suggested that New Zealand batsmen could sleep easily.

With this in mind, Gatting held Botham back after winning the toss and inserting New Zealand. But the cheers of the Oval crowd revealed who was coming on first change after nine wicketless overs of Graham Dilley and Gladstone Small. As Botham ran in from the Pavilion End, blonde mullet bouncing, a nation expected.

Perhaps drawn into the drama surrounding the moment, New Zealand opener Bruce Edgar prodded tentatively at Botham's short of a good length delivery, providing slip catching to Graham Gooch. Juggling the ball, Gooch eventually got the ball under control before delivering his memorable line to a euphoric Botham. The headshaking and expressions of Beefy's teammates said it all.

"I'm not saying that the first ball of my first over in my first match since returning after the ban was the worst I've ever bowled, but it certainly wasn't the best," Botham wrote in Don't Tell Kath. "Unkind observers have described it as a wide half-volley that the batsman had no need to play; it goes without saying that, according to me, it was all part of a cunning plan."

"A fairytale start," Richie Benaud commented on BBC One, struggling to be heard above the din, as Botham turned in celebration towards the selectors. "Well, I've never seen anything like it in my life," Tom Graveney added. "That is quite fantastic." 

Beefy's script writer could not quite stretch to a record breaking moment one ball later, as Jeff Crowe edged just short and wide of John Emburey. But at the end of his next over, Botham moved past Lillee, Crowe trapped lbw as the England all-rounder took wicket number 356. "After all the horrors of the previous two years, the sense of elation mixed with relief was overwhelming."

On a rain interrupted day, Botham later claimed the wicket of Jeremy Coney to end day one with figures of 3/38. Naturally, the press could not get enough of the moment, with the image of a roaring Botham on both front and back pages. "Boy's Own Botham" was the term used in the Guardian, with the man himself describing it as "Roy of the Rovers stuff."

Although the rest of the Test would be dominated by poor weather, Botham was not finished. Replying to New Zealand's 287, England were 285/4 as Botham walked to the crease on day four, and in need of quick runs. Cometh the hour (or 56 minutes) cometh the man on that dreary Bank Holiday Monday.

Botham's destruction of the New Zealand attack gave English fans a glimpse of what they had been missing. Reaching a half century in just 32-balls, Botham took a particular liking to Derek Stirling, smashing 24 runs off one over, equalling the Test record that Andy Roberts had set against Botham's bowling in 1981. 



Botham's unbeaten 59 from 36-balls contained 8 fours and 2 sixes. "If there is still any selector who imagines it is possible even to think of going to Australia without him, it would be interesting to hear the line of argument," Matthew Engel declared in the Guardian. 

However, there was only so much that one man could achieve. Even Botham could not hold back the rain that thwarted England's attempts at drawing the series. But for any England fans desperate for something to cling on to, at least there was a silver lining on the many black clouds that had enveloped English cricket and the Oval before and during that Test. 

It was never easy keeping Botham out of newspapers. In the next few weeks, news of his departure from Somerset would dominate the sports pages, his disgust at the sacking of Viv Richards and Joel Garner leading to his actions. Yet in the immediate aftermath of his Oval heroics it was Botham's deeds on the square that were being talked about.

The brilliance of Botham at the Oval, and the whole theatre of the occasion, highlighted the obvious. He may have been past his best, but without him in the team, England were poorer for it. Replacing Botham would prove an unenviable task over time. How do you fill the shoes of such an imposing figure?

Shining with ball and bat at the Oval, Botham's place on the plane to Australia was now assured. Two telling contributions - his 138 at Brisbane and 5/41 at Melbourne - helped to retain the Ashes, in what would be his last telling contribution in England's Test team. His reputation alone contributed to his bowling success at the MCG; Bruce Edgar could probably sympathise with that.

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