High Wide and Handsome: Ian Botham, the Story of a Very Special YearNimish Dubey |
Author: Keating, Frank
Publisher: Collins Willow
Rating: 5 stars
Imagine an Australian cricket captain calling a press conference in the middle of an Ashes series. To defend an English cricketer who has been a thorn in his team’s side. And to actually defend him against the critics of his own country.
Yep, it happened. The summer of 1985 was like that.
Cricket was well, still a sport. Bill Shankly would have thoroughly disapproved of its not being much more than a matter of life and death but its own players and spectators did not quite seem to mind as much. There was playful banter on the field and players often got together off it, and still went hammer and tongs at each other during playing hours. It was a simpler, idyllic world (although Fred Trueman would disagree even then) that did not quite take itself as seriously as the current one which more often than not is laced with promotional ads that seem designed for a WWE bout rather than a cricketing one.
It was also a time when bowlers largely still called the shots. Pitches were fair. Boundaries were long. Cricket was played mainly in whites. And the number of batsmen who averaged above fifty could be counted on the fingers of one hand (Gavaskar, Miandad, Richards…there!).
Well, in that summer of 1985, Ian Terrence Botham took thirty odd wickets to help England win the Ashes and then, for good measure, thumped a record eighty sixes in the first class season. While doing all this, he also launched a new range of clothing, revealed Hollywood aspirations, got into a tangle with an umpire, was defended by his rival team’s skipper, was criticised for playing a reverse sweep, shampooed his skipper with champagne and undertook a long walk to raise funds for leukemia patients. Oh, and lived life on a teetering edge otherwise as well.
It is this amazing summer that Frank Keating covers in loving detail in perhaps one of the greatest cricket books written about a single English season. That seems like high praise? Well, the book deserves it. For, in 218 large format pages, laden with pictures – and pictures that are interspersed generously with the text and appear in sync with what is written on the page, rather than bunched up in one section – Keating brings an English summer to loving, laughing life like no other author has. Aye, I include the likes of Arlott and Cardus in that list.
What makes High, Wide and Handsome such a compelling read is not just Keating’s excellent narration (and it is excellent), but the almost unprecedented space he gives to players and other members of the cricketing community in the book. So while Botham and his season are the spoke around which this cricketing wheel revolves, there are star statements about cricket, rivalry and of course, Botham himself, from his teammates and opponents. And therein lies the magic. You read the likes of Vic Marks, Peter Roebuck, a young Derek Pringle, a still green Jonathan Agnew, a totally raw Craig McDermott and Allan Border speak eloquently on playing with and against Botham in that summer.
Of course, the most prominent voice out there is that of Botham himself, talking with amazing generosity of his mates, and often enough they are from both his own side and the opposition (we rather surprisingly do not hear much from Richards and Garner although Botham does speak of them a lot). A wonderful touch is the space given to younger cricketers who speak to Keating of the impact playing with Botham or facing him had on them. There are also quite a few trips down the memory lane as Keating recalls the likes of WG Grace and Jessop, informs us about the first reference to a reverse sweep (hint: Grace was involved) and also throws in a comparison between Botham and other all rounders.
All of this flows as smoothly as cream out of a silver jug – or a Richard Hadlee run up – because Keating binds it all together with incredible writing mastery, be it bringing matches to life or simply dropping observations often laced with wry humor. Botham has yet to suffer as other mortals, he comments on the English player’s legendary ability to put away drink, adding; He probably thinks Alka Seltzer is a pop group of something. And then there is his description of THAT first ball six at Edgbaston, when Botham walked in bare-headed, and whacked a very fast Craig McDermott into the stands:
Botham took guard, looked around and, as ever, waited calmly…took a hal-stride from the crease and hit the fast bowler a rapturously thrilling blow, followed by that golfer’s follow-through to the heavens: nasally know-all Birmingham businessmen boozing in the executive boxes that quiff the pavilion scattered for dear life like a cowering swarm of Jack Woolleys. Can Jessop have ever been so dramatic? Or Grace, even? Or Bradman, or Hobbs, or Hammond? Or Trumper? Wellard played on county grounds. This was a wide and handsome Test match field where a full house and full responsibility perforce must go together.
Immediately on the page facing this paragraph is a photograph of Botham playing the stroke. It is a great photograph. But Keating’s prose is so much better. Speaking of photographs, they are numerous and well selected, and the captions are just outstanding – a double spread featuring Gooch, Gower and Gatting comes with this caption; England’s G-force…Gooch, the uncomplicated man who stands up and gives it one; Gower, goldilocks with the languid charms; and Gatting, barbed and bristling at the wicket like a young Henry VIII looking to get a new wife.
Indeed the caption might even sum up Keating’s writing: he gets the basic information right, like Gooch, adds a truckload of seemingly effortless fun and elegance like Gower, and like Gatting, adds a lot of substance in terms of additional information, and is not shy of the odd snarky biff at Beefy’s critics.
Indeed, if High, Wide and Handsome has a fault, it is its tendency to get a little heavy on the praise regarding its central character. Botham is presented as some kind of modern day Hercules, capable of just about anything with bat and ball, and oh in the field as well. But to be fair, back then in 1985, he actually WAS in that sort of zone – some of the statistics are mind boggling even now: eighty sixes in a season, several innings at faster than a run a ball, centuries in little more than an hour, thirty wickets in the Ashes, blinding catches galore…! Keating does throw in a few cautionary remarks about Botham and is gently critical of his captaincy of Somerset (he stepped down at the end of the season as the county finished at the bottom of the table), but for the most part, he ends up being compared (often favourably) with the best, be it batsmen, bowlers, fielders or all-rounders. That might irk some. But then, High, Wide and Handsome is not a book laced with criticism – hardly any of the players get criticised, although some of the administrators and over-critical writers do cop a bit of stick from time to time.
All in all, this is an immensely enjoyable book, recalling perhaps the last golden summer of Ashes cricket, when cricket was still a sport, and Ian Botham was perhaps its greatest all-round practitioner. In many ways, it is like a crazy rock concert in which the author manages to interview spectators and artistes alike and pack it all, along with stacks of great photographs with terrific captions, into one volume.
It is kind of ironic that its final chapter is about the series that spelled doom in the long run for most of the English team that contributed so much to it – it is about the beginning of the West Indies tour of 1986. Botham would never be the same again. And perhaps neither would cricket, as the money stakes went up and one day cricket totally overshadowed its five-day and first-class sibling, so much so that even rules were tweaked to ensure more “fours and sixes.” Ironic at one level, because High, Wide and Handsome provides proof that cricket was fun even when the longer format dominated. It was sport, you see. And 1985 was perhaps the last time that Ian Botham really played it at his peak. He would show us sparks of brilliance in the years that followed, right up to 1992, but he never quite recaptured the magic of that summer of 1985.
Read High, Wide and Handsome even if you do not like Ian Botham. Read it for the feeling of hearing willow on leather. And the sound of spectators clapping and cheering. It is all there. Read it if you love cricket. That simple.