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2014: Sir Ian Botham

Sir Ian Botham used his 2014 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture to express his concerns at the increasing power of the Indian Premier League, suggesting it "should not be there at all."

England's greatest cricketer described the IPL as "too powerful for the long term good of the game" before adding that it "provides the perfect opportunity for betting and therefore fixing".

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Botham's MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture

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Mike Gatting (President, MCC):  Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 2014 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture, both to everyone in the room and to those all over the world who are watching on YouTube, where we are live streaming this event for the very first time.
A few individuals to mention to start.  Firstly, the Cowdrey family, a good number of whom are here tonight.  It’s great to see so many of you here, and I hope you have a very enjoyable evening.  Secondly, our panellists – Matt Prior and Sunil Gavaskar – who will be drawing on their huge international experience to discuss many of the issues raised by the lecture.  Finally, a special thanks to our host for the Q&A, Mark Nicholas, who continues to give freely of his time and remains a huge advocate of the MCC Spirit of Cricket, for which we are very grateful.

Over the years the lecture has seen some of cricket’s greatest personalities tackling the game’s biggest issues, and tonight is no different – and I can say that.  Our guest this evening is widely regarded as one of the greatest English cricketers of all time – (Audience: “Hear, hear.”) – and I was lucky enough to share a dressing-room with him on many occasions, which was never boring.  He started out here at Lord's on the ground staff, where he terrorised many a Member at 6 o’clock at night coming for a net before their evening or Saturday match.  He was quite imposing, as he probably wanted to get to the pub for a beer.  He played over 400 First-class games for three counties and went on to play 102 Tests and 116 One-Day Internationals for England.  He was aggressive and dominant with both bat and ball, and one of the best slip fielders England ever had.  He was the fastest cricketer to reach the double landmark of 1000 runs and 100 Test wickets, and is England’s leading wicket-taker in Test matches with 383 wickets.  I am sure Beefy will certainly give James Anderson a pat on the back, as he always does, perhaps, if he makes it past Beefy’s 383 some time next year.

Since calling time on the incredible playing career, he has gone on to become one of Sky Sport’s most popular commentators and remains one of the most tireless charity fund raisers through his now famous walks for leukaemia.  Ladies and gentlemen, I can say that they are not easy, and Beefy has gone through many a pain barrier.  I have been there, walked with him, and the work he has done has been absolutely magnificent.  (Applause)  He is one of the most outspoken and engaging characters in English sport, and I am sure he will have some very interesting things to say tonight, so, ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome Sir Ian Botham.  (Prolonged applause)

Sir Ian Botham: Good evening, everybody.  I grew up playing sport.  It was my life – cricket in the summer, football in the winter.  If I could change anything about modern Britain – actually, there’d be a few changes – it would be to downgrade the importance attached to exams and upgrade the need for sport.  Sport teaches you about life.  It puts you in situations competitive and social that test and determine your character.  After all, isn’t life about what you get for yourself and how you use that for the benefit of those around you, whether it’s family, friends or teammates?  And sport sets you free: it takes you outside into the air and the elements and asks you to stretch yourself to the limits of your physical and mental attributes.  Sport makes you fit, strong, fuels your adrenaline.  Sport leads to your friendships.  In short, sport encourages you out of the norm into areas you would never otherwise go.  To put this another way, sport takes you from the streets to the parks and the playing fields.  If any Government can’t see that, they are blind.

I always felt cricket was special, because of its gladiatorial nature.  Much as I love the team framework of the game, I also love the one to one, the face-off, the head to head of Dennis Lillee trying to knock my block off, and I used to try and knock Alan Border’s block off and do the same to him.  I love it that Viv Richards took on the world as if he were fighting for his life in the Coliseum and I love it that any emperor in the history of the Roman Empire would have held his thumb horizontal, waiting till the crowd went quiet, and then slowly raise it skywards to the roar of all the people who came to see Viv play.  If any one man personified all that I believe is good about cricket, it is Viv – strength of body, mind and character, a bright personality, a unique talent, brilliantly applied to a successful career and, best of all, an honourable way of playing the game, respecting it dearly, treating his opponents as he would want to be treated himself.

That is not to say that Viv was perfect.  Indeed, he had his moments where he lost the plot, but don’t we all?  Viv’s passion for cricket, for his country, island, county, any team he represented rode roughshod over everything.  Viv was the ultimate team man and defended that team sometimes to the point of going over the top in his responses to things, moments, issues, and getting it wrong.  But I say rather that than hiding in the corner.

This evening I want to make a few points about the game as I see it today and as I see it going forward and, within that, I want to tell you some of my own story.  Cricket has been the main part of my life; it has given me so much.  I hope I have done it justice in return.  I have made mistakes – haven’t I? – but with few regrets, only happiness at my great luck to have been associated with this great game.  Before I tell you some of my own cricketing stories, I would like to say a word or two about the reason we are all here.

Right at the start of my career I played against the Kipper – Kipper Cowdrey.  Of course as kids we watched him play and admired his wonderful stroke play and timing and his brilliant slip fielding.  Then when I got to know him a bit I found him to be a former great who supported the modern player instead of knocking him, as so many seemed to do back then – and I guess a few do now.  Playing for Somerset against Kent in 1974, the Gillette Cup semi-final, I got the great man out.  Granted he was in his 40s, but as far as I was concerned he was the great Colin Cowdrey and I’d got him out.  That in itself was an inspiration to me.  There remains no doubt that his life, so devoted to cricket, has been an inspiration to many others too.

My story 

I was brought up in the south-west, but my roots were always in the north.  We worked hard, we played hard.  My father, Les, was in the Navy, my mum Marie a dental nurse.  I think back now to the sacrifices they made for me as a youngster, initially to get me around Yeovil, then to get me around Somerset, south-west of England and then England – the sacrifices they made.  We were just a working-class family, and the rest of the family also missed out on a certain number of things so that they could accommodate my ambition with cricket.

I then in Yeovil went to Millfield Junior School – Milford Junior School, I should say; Millfield, no chance.  (Laughter)  A certain Mr Hibbett, who became the sports master – I think actually he was the history teacher, but I think he got bored with history – spent time in the evenings with all the guys who wanted to play cricket.  In the summer he would stay there at the school and quite often finance the equipment that we needed out of his own pocket.  I often wonder: do the kids of today have the same opportunities now?  I look at my friend Mark Nicolas and Mervyn King and what they’ve done with “The Chance to Shine” to encourage schools back into cricket.  But why aren’t the Government focusing on sport as a necessity in the school curriculum?  School is about more than exams; it is about life skills.  This subject drives me insane.  I feel that it is my duty to point out the problems that face sport in schools, and specifically cricket.

When I went to school there were 300 kids at Bucklers Mead Secondary Modern School.  I knew every teacher, every teacher knew me, and in the summer we would be there till 8, 8.30, 9 o’clock in the evening playing sport; in the winter we would be in the gym playing badminton or indoor football, five a side, but the teachers were always prepared to stay there.  The problem is now that schools are too big, and when you get 3,000 pupils, there is no personal touch with the teachers.  And as schools get bigger, one of the things that you lose is your playing fields.  Then of course, if you do want to stay behind, there is pressure on the teachers.  We live in this world now of political correctness, health and safety.  Why would you, as a teacher, be there at 6 o’clock in the evening in the summer and someone breaks a leg?  In the culture we live in now you would probably get sued.  Come on, David Cameron.  When I came to Downing Street to meet you, you made all the right noises and promised to come back to me with your ideas.  I’m still waiting.  (Applause)

As I said, I was lucky with my parents, as many youngsters today are.  I wish they were here tonight, my mother and father, but they will be looking down in disbelief, hardly able to believe that their anti-establishment boy is in a suit and tie, specs on – that will come to most of you at some stage – talking to an MCC-driven audience and, on that subject, let’s talk Lord's and the MCC.

I first arrived here as a 15-year-old.  I came up on the train with my mother.  Somerset sent me up here to come and meet Harry Sharp and Len Muncer, running the MCC Young Professionals over the back here at the Nursery.  I arrived on a Friday.  They were impressed enough to say to me “Look, we’ve got about two weeks to go of the season.  Would you like to come back on Monday and sample a couple of weeks?”  It seemed like a good idea.  I went back home with my mother on the train, sat down with my father and mother.  At that time Crystal Palace were a prominent first division side in those days.  I did say “in those days”.  I said “What do you think?” and he said “Son, I’ve seen you play football and I’ve seen you play cricket.  You’re a better cricketer.”  So I returned to Lord's and returned to the ground staff, and then in 1978, against Pakistan, four years after I made my First-class debut, I returned to the place that I had grown to love and admire and I had a big game, a massive game – 100, but 8 for 34.  There have been many great swing bowlers to grace Lord's since – Malcolm Marshall, the late, great Malcolm, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram and our very own Jimmy Anderson.  

If you will bear with me, I would like to say a few things about Jimmy.  He’s going to waltz past my record and he’ll go well into, I think, maybe 500 wickets.  He keeps himself fit, he is a master at what he does, and I admire and love watching him bowl.  The way he performs, the slightest movement of the wrist from the away-swinger to the in-swinger, using the finger as the rudder.  It’s great stuff and I will be more than delighted when he passes my record.  I am just worried about having to lump something all the way out to the West Indies, because that’s where it will happen – (Laughter) – to enjoy with him when he breaks my record.  (Applause)

Then in 1981, back here at this ground, I was captain, and I got out for a pair and I left the ground to stony silence.  I walked off the field and I got to the steps to go into the Pavilion – stony silence.  I went up into the Long Room, turned left to go towards the England dressing-room, people were hiding behind magazines, newspapers were going up – silence everywhere.  Up the stairs into the dressing-room, and I sat down and I thought “Do I really want this?  It’s affecting me, it’s affecting my teammates and, more importantly, it’s affecting my family.  No.”  So I resigned, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Then 26 years later, in 2007, a wonderful thing happened to me.  An envelope popped through the letter-box.  I opened it, read it and at the bottom it said “You cannot tell anyone for the next six weeks the contents of this letter”.  I told my wife Kath and I told my two oldest children, Liam and Sarah.  I daren’t tell my mother, because the whole world would have known within four minutes.  I was about to receive a knighthood, and when the greatest day of my life arrived I was allowed to take three guests, so I decided that we would take the two oldest grandsons – what a moment for them – James and Regan.  I also thought I should invite Kath.  What a remarkable lady the Queen is, almost as remarkable as the long-suffering Kath.

The point of this story is that a great day was finished off by the MCC with a marvellous reception in the Long Room, and they had arranged for tours for all the guests.  There must have been nearly 200 people there and there were tours through the Long Room, through the Inner Sanctum, through the dressing-rooms, the England dressing-room, the Away dressing-room, where Shane Warne had probably sat just a few months before.  It was magnificent.  It really was magnificent.  And then that evening we had dinner in the Library for about 30 of our closest friends and family.  It was done magnificently.  Yes, MCC and me, we’ve got it sorted.  (Applause)

Let’s turn our attention to county cricket.  When I joined Somerset I had an impressive captain, one called Brian Close, a man mountain, amazing guy.  He never asked you to do anything that he couldn’t or hadn’t done before himself, and if Viv Richards was stood alongside me here, he would say exactly what I’m going to say now.  Without his guidance, who knows, we could have fallen off the rails.  We both had meteoric rises, but Brian Close was there to keep us on the straight and narrow.  For that I thank him.  What I don’t thank him for is when, as junior pro, I had to go and travel with Brian Close.  This was the worst you could ever have.  You’re doing 90 mph in the outside lane going to your next venue and Closey is sat there, cup of tea on the console, beef and mustard sandwich in his right hand and the Sporting Life over the steering wheel, looking for today’s elusive winner.  (Laughter)

In 1974, my early days of county cricket, a certain Andy Roberts hit me in the face at Taunton.  I would like to say I was hooking without a helmet.  In actual fact it was my first year in First-class cricket and I had never seen anything like Andy Roberts.  I had never seen any bowler this quick and this clever.  I have to say that it was a really eye-opener – for cricket, the forerunner of things to come, so much so that the evidence is still there and in a few days’ time I’ve got to have two double implants put in.  I am not particularly looking forward to that, I have to say.  I am pretty brave at most things, but not the dentist.

Then I went down to Somerset.  I joined the team there and then Vivian Richards arrived, a pretty talented player, and then Joel Garner followed, two of the finest cricketers I’ve played with.  The things they did for Somerset and, more importantly, the West Indies, were mind-blowing.  The West Indies team, the greatest team ever – I can say that, because I didn’t see Bradman’s team here in 1948, unlike quite a lot of you here.  (Laughter)  But I can assure you that that West Indies team in my time were the hardest I’ve ever played against – power batting, good technique, brilliant catching and ground fielding, and then they had a few bowlers.  The fantastic fast-bowling department, four, five, six, seven, eight of them competing for those four spots, some of the greatest bowlers the game has ever seen.  Did I object to the bouncer barrage?  Well, it sort of made it hard to score and gave us all some feel of what Larwood did to Bradman.  Then people say to me “That West Indian team can’t be the best.  They had no spinner.”  My question to you is “When was he going to bowl?”  (Laughter)

I debuted for Somerset in 1973, won our first trophy in 1979, first for the club after 97 years – what a moment.  I left in 1986.  By then we had won five trophies, and the club was truly on the map.  I made the short journey up the M5 to Worcester, a wonderful place, a wonderful team, wonderful people.  I had a great time there, winning five trophies, including two championships between 1987 and 1991.  Then what was left of my body made its way home to Durham.  Finally I made it back to the north-east of England.  To see Durham’s success today brings great pleasure, and I would like to mention one person in particular up there who I think has done a magnificent job, and he never gets the praise he deserves.  That is Graham “Foxy” Fowler.  He started the academy, which has so benefited Durham and England.  Well done, Graham Fowler.  (Applause)

The importance of county cricket

it is a springboard to Test cricket, yes, but county cricket is an important part of the fabric of our game.  We don’t need franchises.  Are Warwickshire any more relevant as the Birmingham Bears, I ask myself.  But we do need a greater concentration of talent so that standards stay high.  Personally I think there are too many county teams.  Twelve seems a good number to me, but I would not envy the person who has to tell the other six.

England – goodness, how things have changed.  That dreaded wait by the telephone on a Sunday, listening to the radio, to find out if you are in the team on Thursday.  We had rest days in those days as well.  They were magnificent.  We did more damage to those Australians on the rest day than we ever did on the pitch.  (Laughter)  My first ever captain, Tony Grieg, the extrovert, larger than life, made things happen.  I heard about his lecture here two years ago.  It always hurt me that the establishment in England felt he had let them down, but for the MCC to bring him back was fantastic.  We miss you, Greggy.  You were an inspiration and, with Kerry Packer, you changed the modern game.  (Applause)
Mike Brearley, sat there next to Kath – we always used to call him the mentor.  The first time he met you he would look you straight in the eyes and you could feel him probing inside your head.  Needless to say, he didn’t stay in mine too long.  (Laughter)  But we always used to say he had a degree in people.  He was the best captain I played with.   

Bob Willis was another character, my opening bowling partner, my first big mate, the bowlers’ union, the man who took me out of the hotel and encouraged me to see the world through other eyes than just cricket.  We met wonderful people and saw wonderful places.  We embraced different cultures.  We even went up the Khyber Pass, not something I’d have a crack at now.

Central contracts, brilliant, but have they now become so essential to the England player that the sharpness goes?  A long contract is a cosy contract.  To play international sport above all else, above even freshness and rest, you must have desire.  It is not enough to want success; you must need success.  If you want success, that’s fine, but you need it; you need it as a player.  Hunger is still the most important attribute for any sportsman.  They now allow wives on tour, which I think is brilliant, and they should be on tour.  It’s a lonely place when you’re touring Australia, particularly if you’re not going well.  I remember in 1987 we went down with the family.  I wanted the family close to me.  Just to show you how things have changed – for the better – when we went down there I took the family and the nanny and we went down to Australia for the whole tour.  It cost me my whole tour fee and another £3,000 to play for England, but I wouldn’t swop it for the world.

The Ashes

If Viv is the person who most stands for all I believe to be good in cricket, the Ashes is the contest that most explains what the game means to me and why its status in the game should never be taken lightly.  The summer of 1981 changed my life – the cricket, the royal wedding, the miners’ strike – living in the north of England it was very apparent – the race riots – driving into Bristol when St Paul’s was on fire – Margaret Thatcher under the cosh, but what the whole country got behind was the cricket team, because England wanted a winner, and the England team pulled it off against all the odds.  Yes, I became synonymous with that series – Botham’s Ashes – but of course they’re not my Ashes, not close.  The Ashes belong to all of us, the players in that series and in any other series, and to the people of our two proud countries.  Gatt, you’re President: is the urn really too fragile to travel between countries?  I always believed that the side that has won the Ashes should have the Ashes on display in that country, and if that could be achieved, I think it would make them even more valuable.  (Applause)  So I’ve slipped the ball inside, Gatt.

To an Englishman, beating Australia is the best thing in sport, and the same thing applies in reverse to the Australians, with bells on.  I played Shield cricket for Queensland for a season and, believe me, the Aussies ache to beat England.  They regard it as compulsory, a given, and it’s great that they care that much, because beating them is even better because of it.  The Ashes bring out the emotion and, from it, comes everybody’s involvement.  Millions in both lands want to be part of it.

The best example of this in recent times was England in 2005 when, after 16 years of hurt, England turned it around and Freddy was a hero.  The whole country was glued to the matches.  The kids were playing the game wherever you looked.  So passion is my number one reason why the Ashes matter: it inspires kids to play in parks, paint wickets on garage doors.  This is what a winning England team in any sport can do – inspire.  The others are comradeship and a collection of achievements that can define you and your career.  At a time when T20 threatens to take over the game, Ashes matches are an important standard for Test cricket.  They are history, they are records, the excitement, the personalities, the way in which the public become involved, the TV rights, the live crowds – all this, and it’s just a little old urn.

We should beware of overkill of T20 

When T20 began we played the tournament in a three-week burst and it worked.  Since then we have played more and more of it and, guess what, the crowds haven’t got bigger.  The county championship needs space to breathe.  Let’s not crowd our calendar with an overkill of T20.  (Applause)  And while I am on T20, I am worried about the IPL.  In fact, I fear it shouldn’t be there at all, as it is changing the priorities of world cricket.  Players are slaves to it.  Administrators bow to it.  How on earth did the IPL own the best players in the world for two months a year and not pay a penny to the boards who brought these players into the game?  I know this has been modified to a degree, but it is still an imbalance.  The IPL is too powerful for the long-term good of the game.  (Applause) Corruption is enough of a problem in itself, but the IPL compounds that problem, given that it provides the perfect opportunity for betting and therefore fixing.  We have seen a few players exposed, but does throwing the odd second XI player into jail solve it?  I leave you with one thought: to kill the serpent, you must cut off its head.  The ICC anti-corruption unit must pursue the root of the problem and, if necessary, expose the big names.  (Applause)

My reflections on the game 

Cricket has given me so much.  I played in the age of the all-rounder – Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and myself.  If ever cricket told you that there was a place for everyone, it was then.  Think how different we all are – proof that cricket is for all people from all corners of the world.  Hell raising, dope, the ban, even that bloke Tim Hudson who put me in that jazzed-up blazer – remember that multi-coloured blazer? – and said I could be a Hollywood star.  Hardly!  Did anyone see me in panto?  Yes, I was a renegade, but I did all right in the end.  I was a free spirit and I would never knock that in any other person.

The importance of using fame and profile to kick ass, as my grandchildren say –- leukaemia. The success story indirectly comes from my life as a cricketer.  Without doing what I did on the cricket field, I would never have had the platform to make the leukaemia walks and charity work successful.  What has been the impact of those walks on leukaemia?  The difference is that when we first started 30 years ago there was a 20% chance of survival for children with the most common form of leukaemia.  Now it’s a 94% chance – (Applause) – and that very first walk started all that rolling.  We raised enough money to build a leukaemia research centre outside Glasgow, and that’s where all the money that we raise now goes to beating that awful disease.  We have also set up a foundation now so that we can expand and take on other diseases – CRY, Batten disease, brittle diabetes in the young, brain tumours – so we are ongoing.

Closing in now, I have mentioned some people who inspired me and I urge the cricketers of today to continue to look to inspire the next generation.  

Finally, there are two more people I want to pick out – first, Kenny Barrington.  The thing I enjoyed most with Kenny, and I had many tours with him, is that I never heard him say once “in my day”, a true British bulldog to the last.  The saddest day I have ever experienced on a cricket field was when the two teams lined up in Barbados when Kenny had passed away with a massive heart attack that night.  Never to be forgotten.  And then a man who, if he was still alive, would be 100 years old this year – John Arlott, all that is good about playing and watching the game, a wonderful man.  For the last 10 years of his life I was as close to him as anybody outside his family, and if you will bear with me, I will just give you a couple of examples.

John was a creature of habit and he lived just up the road from me in Alderney.  He introduced me to the island, and that’s why we bought a place there.  John would be up at 6 o’clock listening to the Radio 4 News.  The shipping report would come on at 9, he would get a courtesy call from his doctor and at 9.06 – you could set your alarm by it – the phone would ring: “Are you there?” “Yes, John, I’m here.  I haven’t gone anywhere.”  “Good.  What time are you coming up?”  I’d say “Very shortly, John.”  “Good, and bring your thirst with you.”  (Laughter) I have just come back from the Channel Islands and Alderney, and, to this day, every time I go there with my father-in-law, Kath’s dad, we always take a very good bottle of red wine down to John’s grave.  We go down and shake hands, and we sit there and we open the bottle, we enjoy it and then we leave the cork on the grave, and I have been doing that for some time.  There is a considerable amount of cork on that grave.  (Laughter)  They are two men with a perspective on cricket that reflected their magnificent perspective on life.  

I would not have swapped any of it.  I respect cricket, and cricket has been good to me.  I repeat, it has been a major part of my life, and I am a lucky man, as indeed are all of us in this room: we are lucky to have cricket in our lives.  Thank you.  (Applause)

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