Ian Botham’s role at Durham will be that of an indefatigable figurehead © Getty Images
Sir Ian Botham’s inspirational qualities on and off the cricket field have been well chronicled. The great deeds that won him the reputation as one of the greatest England cricketers in history have been followed in retirement by indefatigable charitable commitments approached with the same gusto. Now those energies will be committed to a new challenge: the chairmanship of Durham, a county that needs leading to a secure and lasting future.
Durham’s tired old board was sacked in its entirety last month as part of the punitive measures imposed by the ECB after the game’s governing body reluctantly provided the financial assistance, and expertise, they needed to stop them falling into bankruptcy.
Botham, an English cricketing icon, not least in the north-east, has now accepted a largely figurehead role for a restructured county which will operate as a community interest company; the man expected to bang the drum, rouse the spirits and help bring in the money, while the rest of the new board, as yet not divulged, work on the small print of recovery.
Not that there is much money to be had. Unemployment in the north-east is among the highest in the country and figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest the region has been worst hit since the credit crunch of 2008. But Durham have a knack of uncovering cricketing talent which must be preserved whatever challenges present themselves.
Ben Stokes – an allrounder in Botham’s mould who has welcomed his involvement as “brilliant” – Mark Wood, Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison have all made the grade at England level. And, unlike some other counties, they draw their talent from all social classes.
Harmison’s past comments help keep the response to Botham’s return in proportion. “I would love to help out in any shape or form but it’s easy for ex-players like me to say that,” he said recently. “What we need are financial experts.”
Daily involvement – one assumes – will not be Botham’s remit, rather more the need to inspire, bully and cajole businesses and individuals in the north-east to prove their affection for England’s newest and most northerly first-class county. As someone who has raised more than £12m for charity, largely for leukaemia research, and predominantly by the method of yomping into the sunset down hills and dale until he could yomp no more, Botham’s emotional right to request a little largesse from others cannot be questioned.
His love for the region, especially its big-heartedness and open spaces, is unquestionable. He lives a few miles over the border, in North Yorkshire, in a 17th Century farmhouse which has led him to be fondly dubbed the Squire of Ravensworth, but his affinity is with Durham. He spends much of his leisure time in country pursuits such as fishing on the nearby River Tees which rushes across untamed Pennines valleys and forms the historic border.
His association with the north-east stretches back to the time he joined Durham for their inaugural county season in 1992 – a host of injuries finally silenced him as he retired the following season. He will hope that his second coming is more triumphant because then his body hurt, his career was almost spent and his reputation could not be matched by performance. He described his last hurrah as one of the worst decisions he had made and, as various studies of his cricketing career have made plain, he made one or two.
These were bleak times for Durham as they struggled to adjust to life as a fully-professional county and, mistakenly in hindsight, committed to building an international-sized stadium in the relatively small market town of Chester-le-Street. From there, their financial problems have grown.
Chairman Botham: the very thought will bring smirks around the cricket circuit, although not in his line of sight. After all, he is the least governable of men. At the height of his fame, during one of his many wars with officialdom, he once stood up before a cricket dinner to condemn cricket administrators the world over as “gin-soaked old dodderers”.
Approaching his 61st birthday, English cricket’s greatest roisterer has now joined them, even if his preferred tipple is likely to be a decent swig of good red wine.
It is tempting to remark on this fine example of poacher turned gamekeeper, except that any image concerning Botham and country sports is dangerous. Chris Packham, the mild-mannered presenter of BBC Springwatch, attracted his ire earlier this year, for condemning the deliberate killing of birds of prey on grouse moors to protect the stock of birds. Botham took to the airwaves to condemn him as an “extremist”.
That he will be an absentee chairman for large chunks of the year is inevitable, certainly as long as his Sky TV commitments persist – and, as if to illustrate that, he will not take up the role until he returns from England’s Test tour of India. Having attracted a chairman of world repute, Durham’s next task is to find a vice chairman of complementary qualities.
Botham, as his cricket commentary reveals, is a man of unyielding opinion and not overly obsessed by facts. He has never coached, not held an administrative or business post. But he is perfectly placed to attract star names to fund-raisers, to shame the business community into supporting the county once more, or to lobby support for Durham in the NatWest Blast and turn around some of the most disappointing T20 crowds in the country.
If you care about Durham cricket – or even if you don’t, but Sir Ian Botham thinks you should – you may be hearing from him soon. For the good of English cricket, it is to be hoped that this second coming is a good deal more successful than the first. There is a valuable job waiting to be done. And the red wine will be very palatable.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo