By Stuart Raynor
It was July 20th 1981 when Ian Botham went from outstanding cricketer to sporting immortal at Headingley in Leeds.
The out-of-form, recently-deposed England cricket captain was fighting a losing cause in the third Test of the Ashes series, the biggest contest an English cricketer can be involved in.
Halfway through their second innings, England were still 116 runs behind the score Australia had managed in one attempt when Botham swaggered to the crease bubbling with bravado. Losing causes, Australian opposition, doubters to silence, these were the kind of things Botham fed off.
No cricket fan needs telling what happened next. Botham smashed 145 runs that day, came back the following morning to add four more then watched his good friend the late Bob Willis take eight wickets as England won one of the most improbable and certainly the most famous victory in their history.
It cemented Botham’s reputation as a cricketing inspiration, the all-action batting, bowling and fielding hero every youngster in a back garden or on a playing field wanted to be, the player every England selector wanted to find a copy of.
It is at moments like that when sport has the ability to lift the mood of a country and very few people are born with the ability to create them, but fewer still have the ability to inspire off the field as well.
Botham would never claim to have been a model professional but he has contributed so much more than just cricket, personally raising more than £15m for Leukaemia Research, the Yorkshire Brain Tumour Charity, Batten Disease Family Association, Cardiac Risk in the Young, YUVA Unstoppable, Switchback and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He was knighted for his work in 2007.
Botham, who has lived in Ravensworth near Richmond since 1990, once told The Yorkshire Post that July day 40 years go turned him “from a cricketer to that awful word, a ‘celebrity’, which I hate”, but he used his fame for good. Some professional sportsmen like to keep their charity work quiet but others, like Botham and modern England footballer Marcus Rashford, recognise they have a profile that can change lives.
In 1977 the then 21-year-old Botham broke his foot in only his second Test match – again at Headingley – and was being treated at Taunton’s Musgrove Park Hospital when he stumbled across the children’s ward and spoke to four leukaemia patients. When he came back for a check-up a fortnight later, all four had died.
This time it was Botham who was inspired, walking for John O’Groats to Land’s End in 1985 to raise £100,000 for leukaemia research. By the time he finished, with the help of painkillers and with an England tour weeks away, he had raised over £1m. There were another 17 walks until a spine operation and two replacement hips forced him to hang up his boots.
As in 1981, the odds were stacked against, with the survival rate for leukaemia 20%. Now it is up to 92%.
This year, to celebrate Botham’s 1981 heroics, Beefy’s Charity Foundation is hosting a 40th anniversary virtual walk, where walkers can raise money for his good causes walking any time and at their own pace.
For more information visit www.beefysfoundation.org/ashes-1981-test-series.php