The legendary allrounder and Sky Sports commentator unexpectedly took on the role of Durham CCC chairman for 2017. As he embraces the UK’s post-Brexit wonderland, Sir Ian Botham explains how he’s aiming to steer his county out of the doldrums, too.
Forty years on from his first electrifying acts as an England cricketer, Ian Terence Botham addresses a packed room at Emirates Riverside from behind a nametag: ‘Sir Ian T Botham OBE, Durham CCC, Chairman’.
The aim for Beefy, flanked by a Durham County Council member who’s dwarfed by the metaphorical and physical giant beside him, is simple: begin the latest chapter ofa career spanning five decades and two sports, spawning as many moments of fabled brilliance as it has controversy.
His nametag prompts a jarring realisation. Beefy. Man and myth. Booze-guzzling contrarian. Anti-establishment royalist. Man of the people turned knight of the realm. England’s greatest cricketer who faded sharply. County cricket chairman? “Never,” he says when asked whether he foresaw his new position as a committee man. “I was fighting with them most of my life.”
Even on this day, the internal battle displays itself, Botham shunning a tie for an open-collared shirt and blazer. “It is a totally new world for me,” he adds. “I’ve always been on the other side and now I’m in the engine room. There’s a lot of people who know me, who are surprised that I am sat here. But the ones that really know me knew I’d have a go. Why not?”
Why is Botham adding to the already packed schedule combining commentary duties, personal appearances and that famed commitment to charitable efforts? Only he knows the answer, but the journey began some 30 years ago, nestled in the blurred lines between his old and new life.
May 7, 1992. A date etched in the minds of Durham fans. The day they took their first tentative steps as the 18th and latest county on the professional roster. The early years were nomadic, spent trawling from Hartlepool to Darlington with an ageing squad featuring the ultimate pin-up boy: Botham. By then he was a dishevelled shadow of his former self, but still a massive draw capable of luring people from their homes to various outgrounds around the north-east.
It was not the smoothest of times. The cricket writer Simon Wilde’s biography of Botham asserts that his relationship with Geoff Cook, Durham’s legendary director of cricket, was often strained, and not just over cricket matters. Botham, a staunch Tory, thought Cook wanted to create “a socialist cricket republic” at the club. Cook is quoted: “As an England teammate he had been fun, unpredictable and brilliant; as an employer 10 years later, you wanted some of those qualities but perhaps not all. He gave credibility to an enterprise that needed it, but his impact on the field was not that big.”
That Durham’s first forays into the big leagues featured a slab of Beef trundling in off a couple of paces became a source of great irony, for the club would prove the antithesis of its beginnings. Initially providing a home to ease seasoned stars into retirement, Durham has since built itself a reputation for producing top-rank homegrown internationals.
The system has moulded 10 England players who have helped to stock the club’s trophy cabinet with three County Championships and two 50-over trophies. “Being part of that first team that walked on the field and represented Durham, and then seeing what the club has achieved, has been amazing,” says Botham. “We have a magnificent infrastructure and a beautiful ground. The club has produced some fantastic players, and it’s something I’ve been very proud of. Our record’s there for everyone to see. Look at the amount of Test players we’ve produced.”
Yet the on-field success was a mirage, the extent of which became fully clear towards the end of another successful campaign in 2016: fourth in the Championship and runners-up in the NatWest T20 Blast. That was when mumblings of financial problems, brought about by a combination of poor management and the derided ECB bidding system for determining Test venues, became screams. Durham weren’t just in strife; they were close to ruin. “It’s safe to say we were pretty close to going to the wall. We had to wake up and smell the coffee. Financially, we can’t bury the bones and hope they’ll go away, which is perhaps what has happened in the past.”
So close were Durham to going under that it required a joint ECB and Durham County Council bailout to keep the club afloat. The board invested £3.8 million, while the council – admittedly with little choice – converted a £3.7 million debt into shares – to ensure Durham could live to fight another day.
The news coincided with chairman Clive Leach’s departure, leaving Durham needing a new man. Enter Sir Ian, the adopted north-easterner who now lives a mere 30 minutes from the very ground he sits in. “We have to make the club more accessible to the community. We want to see families in the ground. We have a strong cricketing community around here. The people up here deserve to have a good team. I live just down the road and am well aware of the views of people here. Whenever I am in Sainsbury’s or Marks & Spencer with my wife, I’m seeing an amazing response from people. They’re saying, ‘Good on you’ and ‘We’re so glad you’re doing this’. If that continues, I see no reason why we won’t be successful. It was the challenge that attracted me. And it’s a challenge I’m going to rise to.”
Challenge is the operative word. The ECB bailout didn’t come without its caveats: Durham have gone from the comfort of top-end Division One to the bottom tier, relegated with a 48-point deduction thrown in for good measure. They entered the campaign shorn of their one-day skipper and No.3, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, both having headed south to Surrey amid the financial turmoil.
Losing top players whose time isn’t taken up by international commitments is the kind of blow that have most believing Durham’s route back will be a long one. The departed Borthwick, though, disagrees. “What Durham achieved in the last decade has been fantastic. They will bounce back. It might be a struggle this year, but they can still win the points back and get promoted.” Stoneman adds: “The mentality of that dressing room was always: Whatever you throw at us, we’ll always come back. In 2013 we started on minus seven points, with no overseas player, and we went on to win the league. Hopefully the lads that are still there, and the coaching staff, can continue that mentality.”
No one is more bullish than Mr Chairman himself. “The aim is to get back into Division One very quickly. The side has pretty much stayed together, and we’re starting on a pretty reasonable field. The 48 points is two wins, and the team is more than good enough to get those. They are, in my opinion, the best side by a distance in the division.” The depth of Botham’s knowledge regarding the specific talent pools on show in the second tier of the County Championship is a moot point.
For all the claims of revival, Botham’s success or otherwise will be determined on and off the field. “He brings a buzz with him,” says chief executive David Harker. “It doesn’t do you any harm to have Ian leading conversations with cricket people. In any chairman, you’ll get strengths and weaknesses. Ian, by his own admission, isn’t a businessman. But, as a cricket club, having him at the helm is good. You play to your strengths and there are many counties around the country who would fancy having Sir Ian Botham as chairman.”
The benefits have already shown themselves, with Durham persuading Keaton Jennings – who had a relegation clause in his contract – to remain at the club following a whirlwind winter that saw him score a century on Test debut for England. “Keaton was only too keen to stay,” reveals Botham. “I know his father really well, having played with him; I’m that old! We’re very happy to keep him, and I think all of our fans are. He has made a big impression.”
Botham insists he will be far from just a frontman. “Anybody who knows me knows I won’t be doing this half-cock. I’m proud to be doing it, and I love and know the area. I regard myself as a local, and I’m in it for the long term. It won’t be a figurehead role. Even if I am on the other side of the world, I can conference in. I didn’t know I was doing this until a few months ago, and my diary is full 24 months in advance. So we will have to shuffle things around, but I intend to be here as often as I can. I’ve been in the game all my life. I’ve seen it from a player’s point of view. I think I can give a fair bit back, maybe open some doors. And no decision will be made without my involvement.”
Botham’s web of contacts will improve his chances. One of those, in particular, is friend and business partner, Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove. “I often have a drink with Rod, who is one of my closest friends and someone I’ve always been able to confide in. I said, ‘Look, don’t fall off your chair, but I’m thinking about [being Durham chairman]. What do you reckon?’ He was magnificent. He’s been through a similar situation [with a debt-ridden county] at the Ageas Bowl and come through it. He took me through the pros and cons and the ups and downs and at the end he said: ‘You can do it’. I said, ‘Right, I’ll give it a go’ and I’m glad I have.”
One of the key issues in the in-tray of Botham and Bransgrove has been the city-based Twenty20 league set to be introduced in 2020, and Durham’s leader is unequivocal in his support: “I think it’s exciting. There’s still debates with how it’s done – I think it’ll be areas rather than cities – and we expect to be part of it here in the north-east. How it all develops remains to be seen, but it’s financially very sensible to do it. You look at the Big Bash, it’s probably the best tournament now. We need to take a little bit from the Big Bash and IPL, and find the right formula. I cannot believe that any chairman of any club cannot see the benefits of it.”
It certainly won’t be dull. “I’ve been learning things about corporate law, which is mind-blowing to me,” he jokes, before taking aim at one of his favourite targets: the politically correct lobby. “Suddenly I’ve got to be thinking about man-management. In fact, I should say people management in this day and age. See! I’m learning already.”
For ‘Sir Ian T Botham OBE, Durham CCC, Chairman’, there’ll likely be plenty more lessons where that came from.