The first time Ian Botham came to Durham, he arrived on Good Friday. For the press, the comparison was irresistible. “Durham’s own Messiah”, as the Guardian called him, arrived just in time, two days before their very first competitive fixture as a first class county. The rest of the squad had been together for a while already, doing their winter training in a warehouse, playing warm-ups against Essex and Oxford University. The weather had been “bloody freezing”, and the club’s chief executive, Mike Gear, was hoping that “the cold would win a few matches for us, once we have managed to get used to it ourselves.” Botham, though, had missed all this because he had spent his pre-season on holiday in South Africa, a reward for a winter spent playing in the pantomime at Bournemouth and opening the batting for England in the World Cup.
Durham’s first match fixture was at The Racecourse, in the Sunday League. No one was able to practise much, because the outdoor nets weren’t yet in a fit state. Unconcerned, Botham posed for a team photo and spent the rest of the day drinking with his new team-mates in the Dun Cow. On Easter Sunday he opened the batting, made 14 in 11 overs, and was stumped by Warren Hegg as he tried to hit Paul Allott back over his head. In the field he came on second change, “heavily sweatered” according to reports, and bowled eight overs for 57 runs. And then it happened. Going into the last over, Lancashire needed 10 to win and had one wicket left. Botham ran out Hegg with a direct throw from midwicket. Durham won. “It’s all part,” Botham said, “of having a good scriptwriter.”
Twenty-five years later, Botham is back, chairman now. This time he is too late to save the club, who are still reeling from the punishments imposed by the ECB, relegation, a strict salary cap, the loss of their Test status for The Riverside, and 48-point, four-point, and two-point penalties in the three competitions they’re in this season. Those, he agreed at his first press conference on Monday, were “unnecessary”. But he still dismissed with a breeziness that was almost bluster. “I can sit here and whinge,” Botham said, “or I can turn around and say ‘that’s two wins’.” He believes Durham, who have lost both Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick to Surrey, will still be the best side in the second division by a distance, so it won’t take them long to make up the deficit. And besides, he added, “we could be playing minor counties.”
Raymond Illingworth once said that Botham’s “idea of team spirit and motivation was to squirt a water pistol at someone and then go and get pissed”. But then Illingworth always did have a sharp tongue. Simon Hughes, who played alongside Botham at Durham, remembered that he would stride around the dressing room threatening that anyone who wasn’t trying hard enough “will feel my boot against the seat of their pants”. Botham himself “turned up more or less when he liked and rarely practised” Hughes wrote in A Lot of Hard Yakka. He would spend the last half hour before a match practising his putting, and then, in the dressing room “he snoozed, shuffled papers, or phoned Allan Lamb or Robin Smith with some snippet he’d gleaned on a filly running in the 3.30 at Redcar.” But still his influence on the club “was as vast as his body”.
If Botham found waiting to bat boring, you can’t but wonder how fun he’s going to find board meetings with the local council. He took the job at short notice, and, because his diary is already full for the next “18 to 24 months” he will be doubling it up with his other work. “Even if I’m on other side of the world,” he says, “we can all pick up a phone.” So he’s not going to be micro-managing things. But then, he doesn’t necessarily need to be. Botham may not be able to bail Durham out, as the ECB Chairman Colin Graves did for Yorkshire, but he will be able to galvanise the club, to inspire their remaining players and give some hope to their supporters. Most importantly, he says he will be able to “open doors” that will help them bring in more revenue.
It’s easy to forget that there was a time when, as Hughes put it, Botham “turned a match, any match, into an event”. His “mere presence lured an extra throng through the turnstiles”. Durham spent their first season touring the county while they were waiting for The Riverside to be finished, and played to large crowds almost everywhere they went, even though they didn’t win any of the Championship matches they played after the first week of June. They recruited 6,500 members before the end of May, which meant they had more than all but four of the other counties. And they also brought in £2m in sponsorship, £300,000 of it from a deal Botham helped set up with Scottish and Newcastle breweries. Executives may not want to put Botham on their posters anymore, but he probably plays golf with a few who wouldn’t mind Ben Stokes.
Durham are a good club who have been badly managed and harshly punished. They have a fine academy, and as Hughes wrote, a “loyal and optimistic” set of fans. There is, he said in the 1993 Wisden, “a touching family atmosphere about the whole venture”. They need to pull together now, and Botham is a good man to rally around. He still feels the goodwill, even though he once said that joining Durham was the biggest mistake he ever made. He lives a short way away, and says that people have been coming up to him in the supermarket to offer their support. Durham’s problems are complicated, and Botham’s solutions simple. But in the absence of a sugar daddy, his scriptwriter may be the next best thing.
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