Dangle the opportunity to interview Sir Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham in front of a cricket fan like me and you won’t have to wait long for an answer. The invite to have a blast with one of the greats came from Rockliffe Hall, as they were launching a charity partnership with Sir Ian that will see the venue host a series of events over the course of the next 12 months. All proceeds raised will go towards Beefy’s Charity Foundation.
Botham has been fundraising since 1985, raising millions for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Recently he took steps to set up and fund his own not-for-profit foundation allowing him the flexibility to support other charitable causes across the country, aiming to inspire and support young people suffering from chronic illnesses. The premise of the media call was straightforward. ‘We’re asking that the interview focuses on Sir Ian’s charity work and his partnership with Rockliffe,’ (fine, no problem, happy to help). ‘He will naturally talk about cricket too,’ (excellent!) But it’s what I learned about Botham’s charity work rather than his cricket career that left an impression. No mean feat considering he amassed 5,200 Test runs, 383 Test wickets and was equally prolific in the field as a player.
When I arrive at Rockliffe, Botham has an hour to speak to various members of the press before a two-hour event in The Clubhouse. This will see him speak to an audience of specially invited guests, including business organisations he’s hoping will sponsor the events happening at the hotel, and families associated with the various charities that they will support. I’m introduced to his daughter, Sarah, who’s closely involved with the foundation. She’s made it here despite being on crutches having just had surgery on a pretty serious ankle injury. Sarah runs Sola Events, a company that organises all of Botham’s charity events and infamous walking challenges. ‘I just tell him what time to turn up and he turns up late every time,’ she laughs. This evening is no different, so I take the opportunity to ask Sarah about the foundation and her dad’s drive to help charities.
‘Dad first started by helping Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research in the 80s. He had an injury and was in hospital. The kids in the children’s ward heard he was there and persuaded staff to get him to visit them. He spent half an hour playing cards with four little lads and as he left said, “I’m back in two weeks for a consultation, I’ll see you then.” As he walked out the doctor said, “They won’t be here, they don’t have long left.” They had leukaemia.’ Botham wrote a cheque immediately and began taking on epic walking challenges in aid of charity not long after.
The first was a 900-mile trek from John O’Groats to Land’s End, 14 more have followed across the globe, covering some 10,000 miles in total, raising an estimated £13 million. In that time the survival rate for the most common form of childhood leukaemia has rocketed from 20 percent to over 90 percent today. His most recent walk took place last year in Sri Lanka in 50 degree heat, and of the 50 who started only four (including Botham) completed the whole journey.
Learning that resilience is a family trait, I’m introduced to his second daughter Becky who has just arrived with her two young children. Becky, a diabetic, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro less than a month ago despite being admitted to intensive care the week before she was due to leave because of complications with her sugar levels. She raised money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, one of five charities Beefy’s Charity Foundation is supporting. Others include the original charity he began helping, Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, as well as Cardiac Risk in the Young and Brain Tumour Research and Support Across Yorkshire. Botham’s wife Kath is patron of the latter.
When I’m introduced to Lady Botham I officially feel like I’ve gate-crashed a family reunion. Family time must be important given Botham’s packed diary. So much of his life has been spent on foreign tours which can last up to five months at a time. Despite being retired since 1993, Botham’s still touring the world as a Sky commentator, working alongside other ex-England captains like David Gower, Mike Atherton and Andrew Strauss.
The main man finally arrives. One of his grandchildren, who has just started walking, makes an immediate beeline for his famous grandad. He’s hoisted up like the County Championship Trophy, before England’s most famous all-rounder dishes out vice-like handshakes to most of the room. We’re ushered out to The Clubhouse terrace where press shots are taken. A glass of white wine appears in his hand as if conjured from nowhere and we finally get to sit down and chat while his grandchildren play in the background.
The family are clearly close, and a big part of Botham’s life. ‘They’ve all been involved since the very first walk,’ he explains. ‘The fact that we’ve been so successful with the fundraising – and we do make a difference now – makes us as a family all feel very proud. It’s a family affair and that’s what the foundation will be.’ Botham explains that the family have all joined him at some point on each of his gruelling walks, alongside celebrities and cricketing legends he regularly ropes in to help boost funds further skyward. Sarah is currently planning one for 2015 that will see a group led by her dad trek across South Africa before the start of the Test series.
‘I just like giving something back,’ he says matter-of-factly, when I ask if the walks are as cathartic as they are gruelling. His pain threshold is famously high. Early in his career he took a fierce bounced delivery to the face and responded by spitting two teeth out (two more were removed the next day) and returning to the crease. He smashed a boundary to win the game and collected the man-of-the-match award. If Roy of the Rovers had a cricketing cousin he would look and play like Botham did.
Botham famously did play football professionally, training with teams to stay fit during the winter and even appearing at centre half in competitive league games. He made 17 appearances for Yeovil Town and 11 for Scunthorpe. His Wikipedia page has him down as a Sunderland fan but don’t believe it. ‘I used to train with Sunderland, but I’ve always been a Scunthorpe United man. Wherever I am in the world, the team I always check first is Scunthorpe. I like to see all the teams locally do well, I’d like to see the ‘Boro back up there too.’
Perhaps he feels obliged to say that, given Middlesbrough’s training ground is a signature slog from the very spot we’re sitting at. The team’s owner Steve Gibson is also the man behind Rockliffe Hall who’ve chosen Beefy’s Foundation as their 2014/15 charity. ‘There’s no end of things that we can do with the foundation here and we will endeavour to do as much as we can. I like the fact I live 15 minutes from here too.’
Home for the Bothams is a big old farm in Ravensworth just off the A66 between Darlington and Barnard Castle. ‘We love being up here in the North East. We’ve been in our current house for nearly 30 years and we’re not going anywhere.’ The North East was where he finished his playing career, representing Durham against Australia in his final ever game. ‘I joined Durham in their first year which was great, but soon after my body just said, “You think I’m hanging around to play in that new stadium? Forget it.” I thoroughly enjoyed it there though; the facilities at Durham are great and the team have done exceptionally well.’ He’s back regularly too, mostly in a media capacity, and was in the press box when England bowled out Australia to win the Ashes series here last summer. ‘It’s one of the warmest places we go to. It doesn’t matter who you are you get the same treatment. That’s the North East though.’
The North East is not warm weather-wise on the evening of our chat though. Stormy conditions have meant Botham has had no reception on his phone so is yet to learn the latest news that England bowler Jimmy Anderson has escaped a misconduct charge after being accused of pushing Indian all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja. ‘The Indians will be fuming,’ he says with a wry smile. Anderson is closing in on Botham’s record of 383 Test wickets which stood for almost 30 years after Botham overtook Bob Willis (with whom he now owns a wine company alongside Australian wine expert Geoff Merrill). Anderson’s misconduct hearing took six hours and was overseen via video conference by a judicial commissioner based in Australia. It’s a system Botham is relieved he didn’t have to deal with during his day as he was no shrinking violet on or off the pitch. ‘I don’t think anyone would have been complaining in our day, you just got on with it.’ He goes on to correctly predict that England will win the rest of the summer series against India 3-1.
As a former England captain, he sympathises with the struggles England’s current leader Alastair Cook has had with form in the last 12 months. ‘He was pretty much in the last chance saloon to get it right. I’m not worried about him as a batsman, but because his batting wasn’t going right he was getting scrambled. I don’t care who you are in the world, if you don’t think it was getting to him then you know nothing about sport. He was definitely under the cosh but it happens. Professional sport is tough. There are no prisoners taken, no quarter given. If you talk to the great West Indian sides, they’ll tell you quite openly, “We targeted the captain, that’s the guy. We get on top of him and it sends ripples through the team.”’
Botham was always outspoken and never far from controversy as a player – Mike Atherton recently described him in The Sunday Times as ‘The greatest provider of decent copy that English cricket has ever known,’ but even Botham admits that there were some things said on social media about Cook that went way over the top. ‘I felt for him [Cook]. What people forget is, when that player goes home, he’s got a wife, he’s got a family, a mum and dad and they’re all copping it. Social media’s a great thing but only if it’s used the right way. I’m glad it wasn’t around when I played because I got enough stick without it!’
Back in The Clubhouse, Sarah (who’s doing a remarkable job of hosting everyone whilst hobbling round on crutches) introduces me to the parents of Kyran Richmond, an 11-year-old from County Durham who was diagnosed with Batten disease in 2011. The disease is passed on from one generation to another and begins in childhood. The ‘waste disposal unit’ in every cell fails and cells begin to die. The brain is attacked, the children go blind, suffer increasingly bad seizures and, because there’s no cure, will sadly die.
Kyran’s mum, Debbie, explains that almost all of her son’s sight has gone, with only a small amount remaining in his left eye. ‘The BDFA have been fantastic,’ she explains. ‘We’ve met other parents who are going through the same situation. They offer every bit of support we need. They try and hold a different family event every weekend that the families can go to. It’s nice to meet the other parents whose children are going through the same thing.’ The family have set up a fundraising site www.kyranrichmondfundraising.co.uk to raise awareness and funds to give Kyran all the support he needs. Their hope is to take him to Florida this autumn while he still has some sight. Meeting people being directly helped is a reminder that Botham’s achievements on the pitch are being matched, if not exceeded, by what he’s doing off it. And that’s saying something.
Sir Ian Botham will be attending all of the events Beefy’s Charity Foundation are hosting at Rockliffe Hall. For more information visit www.beefysfoundation.org