“Let’s give it some humpty”, Ian Botham said quite famously to Graham Dilley at Headingley in 1981. What choice did he have? After all, the vultures had begun to circle. The English, expecting a brisk end to proceedings, had duly checked out of their hotel rooms and had resigned themselves to Australian superiority. With odds of 500-1 being wagered on an English triumph, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh could hardly contain themselves from making harmless bets against their own chances. Botham, however, raged against the dying light of English hope, and Bob Willis, seemingly in a trance, engineered a most improbable win.
The Headingley test preceded me by twelve years, and before today it was nothing more than just another unfathomable occurrence. But for some inexplicable reason, I tried to find meaning in Botham’s century - the very nature of it - beyond the realms of cricket, of course. After considerable thought, I realised that the events leading upto that ‘humpty’, serve as a striking metaphor for my present turmoil. A subliminal force suggests that Sir Ian Botham-English allrounder, never one to keep off the grass or the bottle, a legend by all means but above all a non-conformist- is the unifying force between my troubles and those that English cricket suffered (till the 20th of July) in the summer of 1981. Him and I, we share a common space separated only by time.
Botham, before the Headingley test, unburdened himself of the duties of captaincy. After twelve tests in charge, he had no wins to his name. Many, quite naturally, would have thought of this as the ultimate ignominy. Not Botham. His champion ego might have been a bit bruised, but this was a belligerent man. He knew no middle ground and in that quite bizarre fourth afternoon, he chose not to betray himself and his methods. Most would have embraced defeat without much fuss, and instead move on to the next skirmish.
Men like Botham, however, are rare.
He must have been difficult to understand. His intransigence, which rarely went unnoticed, was a ready cause for conflict between him and the powers that be. But from the comforts of my couch, he seems to be a simple man, easily likeable and readily identifiable.
His century, in the context of the match and his resignation as captain, was perhaps restorative of his self-belief. It was, from what I have gathered, a wild, less refined form of what is otherwise a subtle art. However, the most striking feature of this innings is that it started out as a means to have fun; not to salvage a test match, but instead just to play the game. It is the most elementary form of sporting expression, something akin to what my friends and I indulged in on the school fields and in narrow alleys. In many ways Botham, before Headingley, is emblematic of what I am now- restrained and a bit overwhelmed.
Botham, for a period of time, was the byword for adventure, symbolic of the Baby Boomers that transformed cultures across Europe and America. An ambitious young man, whose approach was in contrast to those belonging to an older England. He was the heart and soul of a new cricketing epoch in Old Blighty. Captaincy, however, was a wine of a different vintage. In cricketing terms, it is a mark of one's maturity. For all the virtues Botham could count on, maturity wasn't one of them. He never adapted to its demanding nature, and seemed to suffer from a loss of form, in all respects-be it bowling, batting or fielding.
The crisis ultimately culminated in his resignation and the subsequent release of tension. There exist a few reasons for his sudden return to form-the return of Mike Brearley, a rediscovery of his bowling abilities, etc. - but the circumstances resulting in his cathartic century are rather simple.
It can be reasoned that it was only when he realised that defeat was inevitable, did the burden truly ease, and he flashed his blade (Graham Gooch’s actually) through every angle known to batsmen of the time. It must be more than mere coincidence that Botham was captain only for twelve tests. Quite like him, I too have failed to establish myself over twelve papers of varying difficulties. Botham, I strongly feel, would approve of my analogy. But the reinvigorating qualities of a century that redefined his (and his country's) fortunes remind me of the uplifting elements that logic-defying sporting moments seem to possess.
On that day, Botham was the very embodiment of the ludicman, and in the process became an unofficial ambassador of Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon. Most importantly, he made me believe, if temporarily, in what Simon Barnes calls the ‘inevitability of an improbability.’