The “Botham” Conundrum – I

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“It was absolutely crackers. I felt under so much pressure to live up to the comparison,” Philip DeFreitas said in a 2006 interview. “I felt for the guys because I knew they were on a hiding to nothing. They tried me 14 different times. I have got to be the most recalled player in Test history. But they only came back to me when the latest bloke to suffer in comparison to Beefy was booted out.”

And so it was. From Pringle to Capel, from Lewis to Cork, from Irani to Flintoff, English Cricket post Ian Botham has always been on the lookout for the next, well, Ian Botham. The sheer impact the man had had on the collective conscience of English Cricket fans and administrators alike, ensured that since mid 1980’s, player after player would be tried at the highest level and judged, and eventually discarded, based on whether they were able to provide the same impact with bat and ball as Beefy did.

English Cricket has always taken pride in the priority it gives to test matches over other formats. And until recently, the support and level of interest meted out to the ODI’s and T20’s was so scratchy, that it is but fair to see these players of years gone by in the light of test matches only.

Derek Pringle was the first Botham. No, wait. He was the second Botham. In any case, he was the first “next Botham”, when he started his career for England in 1982. He did have an enviable county record to be touted so, but the bubble would burst over a period of ten years, i.e. the length of his test career , where in 30 matches for England, he would average 15.10 with the bat, and take a meagre 70 wickets at an average of 35.97. To his enormous credit, however, all of his three five wicket hauls came against the legendary batting line up of the West Indies of the 80’s and early 90’s. In one of his laments about his career made during an interview in 2006, Pringle recalled Simon Barnes of The Times summing it up perfectly: `Is it Pringle who has failed, or our expectation of him?'” But, in all honesty, it was a career that never took off.

When one has to discuss DeFreitas or Cork and the burden of expectation on them of blossoming into the next Botham, and how they fared against it, one has to note that they did actually make it as decent test match bowlers. But if you consider their batting prowess, their records would suggest that they did not merit any batting position above eight or nine. A far cry from the impact Beefy would give from his number six position in the lineup.

Phil DeFreitas had a career similar to that of Cork, just that he did it a decade back from the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s. Potent in English conditions, not so much abroad, Daffy, as his teammates called him affectionately, was a Derbyshire senior to the man he would eventually lose his “all-rounder” spot to in the England test side. He does however have four test fifties and 140 wickets in 44 tests to his credit. But a batting average of less than fifteen (14.82) and a bowling one of 33.57 told the world that he was no Botham. In his defense though, one must say, true to the excerpt from his interview, his exclusions from and appearances for the test side were so sporadic that they might have prevented him from blossoming.

If you go by records alone, David Capel fared the worst amongst this lot. In the 15 test matches he played for England, his batting average (15.58) and bowling average (50.66) reversed would probably suggest that you were looking at the greatest all-rounder to have ever lived. That not being the case, however, does not speak very highly about what he achieved as a test match cricketer. In the 3rd test at Karachi on the tour to Pakistan in 1987-88, he did however narrowly miss out on a test ton. He scored a dogged six-and-a-quarter-hour 98 before he was bowled by Abdul Qadir, bettering his previous highest score (and eventually his only other score above fifty) of 53. Of his 21 wickets at this level, however, Capel can boast of the fact that he had claimed the scalp of Vivian Richards thrice. This feat might remind a student of cricket of Vijay Hazare, who had claimed the hallowed scalp of Sir Donald Bradman thrice too, out of his 20 wickets in 30 matches.

Chris Lewis came at the beginning of the 1990s. It was a period when Botham was still active, DeFreitas fairly regular by his standards, Pringle still playing and Capel, the third “Botham” had just vanished into oblivion. Touted as the most belligerent batsman of the lot identified yet as the answer to the lingering question, Lewis would be the only one to end up with an average of over 20 (23.02), also the only one to amass more than a thousand Test runs (1105). His innings of 117 at Chennai in 1993 in a lost cause was the batting high point of his career. It was a breathtaking innings, albeit in a lost cause; everything he tried came off; he even reached his hundred with a six, bringing Chepauk to its feet. His bowling exploits at the international level never matched up to what he achieved in county cricket, but his brisk medium pace got him 93 wickets at an average of 37.52 in the 32 Tests he played. Birmingham being his favorite hunting ground, Lewis recorded his best figures of 6/111 against a very potent West Indies batting in July 1991, and would return to pick up another five-for against India at the very fag end of his career in 1996. It was said of him that he never integrated with the team well. Neither did his living life in the fast lane sit well with the conservative English media and public, nor did he score any brownie points with the players when he gave away the names of three well-known English players reportedly involved in match fixing to the ECB in 1999. But he was already a cricketer of the past then, having finished his career with England a good three years before that against Pakistan. He would return to public scrutiny only in 2009 when he would be sent to prison on drug charges, only to be released in June 2015 after serving six years of a thirteen year sentence. From “Ashes” to ashes, they say. Meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe, he also made his T20 debut.

Dominic Cork (averaging 18.00 with the bat and 29.81 with the ball) was often regarded as the leader of the English seam bowling attack during the mid 1990’s, especially in English conditions. He had an exceptional start to his test career in 1995 at Lords against the West Indies. He took 7/43 in the second innings, which remains the best figures by an Englishman on test debut till date. A hat-trick taken against the same opposition a couple of matches later and an unbeaten 56 in the fourth test cemented his place in the side, and placed on his shoulders the burden of the “the new Botham” tag, according to the media. Till that point in time, when his career came to an end after 37 test matches in 2002, Dominic Cork would be judged as a bowler alone, barring a few flashes in the pan that were too few and too far between. The 1995-96 England tour of South Africa, the 1998 South Africa tour of England, or the 2000 West Indies tour of England saw him bowling at his wily, swinging best. But long before he had finished his career in 2002, it was apparent that Dominic Cork too was no Ian Botham in test matches.

Craig White started his career as an off spinner who batted, and finished as a fast bowler who could summon up speeds of over 90 mph. In a 30-test career for England starting in 1994, he scored 1052 runs at 24.46, and took 59 wickets at 37.62, but comparisons with Botham hardly ever came his way, oddly. Whether this was because he had played 22 of his 30 tests after he turned 31, or because the English media were not particularly excited about the bowling prowess of a spinner turned pacer, one might never know. But this probably served him well, as Andy Zaltzman summed up his career with the words, “By the end, it was hard to work out if he had overachieved or underachieved with both bat and ball. Or done exactly as well as he should.”

Ronnie Irani had the kind of first class career for Lancashire and Essex, which augured more than the 3 tests he got for England. Accumulating 13472 runs at an average of 41.58, and 339 wickets at 29.51 in the period of 1990-2007, he was one of the stalwarts of county cricket, mainly playing for Essex (1994-2007). His very brief stint as a test cricketer started well in the India tour of England in 1996-97 though. On his debut in the first test at Birmingham, he claimed Mohammad Azharuddin as the first of his three eventual test victims, and scored a belligerent run-a-ball 34 to take the game away from India when they were threatening to run through England. In the second innings of the 2nd Test (at Lords) in the same series, he scored 41 off 100, which was to remain his highest score at test level. Although he had decent outings with the bat in two of the three occasions he was asked to do a job for the team, it was becoming apparent that his bowling lacked the teeth that was required of a “Botham” in tests, lacking pace or movement to trouble the Indian batsmen consistently. He was dropped for the third test, only to feature again in England whites against New Zealand three years later in 1999, at Kennington Oval, Irani scored 1 and 9 in the two innings, took 1/38 in the first innings, did not bowl in the second, and never played for England again. New Zealand won the match by 83 runs.

As the 1990’s were coming to an end and English cricket fans were bracing for the new millennium, it was becoming abundantly clear that neither Chris Lewis, Ronnie Irani, nor Dominic Cork would be able to fill the boots of Sir Ian Terence Botham.

And then on the 23rd of July 1998, against South Africa, Andrew Flintoff played his first test match.

(to be continued……)

 

~ Abhinab Dasgupta

image source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Read here: The Botham Conundrum – II

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