When Ian Botham played king at the panto and the 1992 Cricket World Cup


Botham came off the stage at Bournemouth’s Pavilion Theatre and inspired England to victory over Australia at the World Cup

The king is dead. Long live the king. Composite: Getty Images

Things were rarely dull where Ian Botham was concerned. After all, anyone who is an inspiration to David Brent is going to be an entertainer. Botham wrote his own script for England one last time at the Cricket World Cup in 1992. Yet, as his teammates jetted off for a tour of New Zealand in January 1992, a very different set of scripts were causing a stir among the British press. Botham joined the tour late after being given permission to appear on A Question of Sport and a pantomime in Bournemouth, where he was playing the part of the king in Jack and the Beanstalk.

Most journalists were delighted by his absence; oh no they weren’t. Botham’s decision to put King before country did not go down well with the press. “I’ll settle for the grim conclusion that in terms of basic morality, of what is plainly right or wrong, English cricket has just displayed a chilling ignorance,” wrote James Lawton in the Express.

Scratch below the surface, though, and Botham’s late arrival was not as controversial as suggested. Botham was never intended to play for the Test team on the New Zealand tour. He did end up winning his 100th cap in Wellington after a few of his teammate pulled out injured, but he had effectively been picked as a one-day specialist for the Cricket World Cup.

Inevitably, Botham was quick to make his mark when he did touch down in New Zealand. Bludgeoning 79 from 73 balls in a one-day international in Christchurch, he cemented his position as a pinch-hitting opener for the World Cup.

But his tongue-in-cheek comments about England’s old rivals stirred things up as the team arrived in Australia. “What would be better than to beat the Aussies at Melbourne in front of 100,000 convicts?” asked Botham, with a mischievous grin on his face. Understandably, his jibe did not go unnoticed. “Australians tend not to enjoy being called convicts and such remarks probably add fuel to Australia’s current fad with Republicanism,” reflected David Gower. A week before the Australia-England clash in the World Cup, Australia Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech in front of the Queen about Australian independence. The tension was building.

Of course, Botham liked nothing more than the big stage. At the SCG on 5 March 1992, there was the chance of one last hurrah in front of nearly 40,000 spectators and a growing number of BSkyB subscribers in the UK; sales of satellite dishes had soared by 76% during the first two weeks of the tournament. Beefy did not disappoint.

Australia were vulnerable coming into the match. Defeats against New Zealand and South Africa in the group were followed by a one-run victory over India, meaning the England fixture took on even more meaning than usual. Defeat at the hands of England would leave the 7/4 pre-tournament favourites struggling to make the semi-finals.

England, on the other hand, were flying. After beating India by nine runs and West Indies by six wickets, they dismissed Pakistan for 74 before the match was rained off. Botham had not yet shone with the bat, but his bowling was on the money. Figures of 2/27 earned him the man of the match award against India, with returns of 1/30 (West Indies) and 2/12 (Pakistan) backing up his strong start. Seemingly trundling in at military medium pace, he was using all his skill and nous to fox opponents. With Australia, there was also the bonus of his reputation to take into account.

Botham takes a wicket against Australia. Photograph: Adrian Murrell/Allsport

As the hosts reached 145/4 in the 37th over, the innings was in the balance. Enter Botham. He turned the match in England’s favour in just seven balls, removing Allan Border, Ian Healy, Peter Taylor and Craig McDermott without giving away a single run. “As if anointed from above, he won the match in seven deliveries,” wrote Mark Nicholas in the Telegraph.

The less said about his celebration, the better. After dismissing Border, Botham gave the crowd a little wiggle – described in the Times as a “dainty, hip-wiggling dance routine”. At 36, he could be excused for his dad dancing. But his wild celebration after dismissing Taylor was the Beefy of old, an explosion of ecstasy as England’s all-rounder had taken 4/31 and once again made the Aussies dance to his tune.

After restricting Australia to 171, Botham chose an ideal time to hit his highest score of the tournament – his first and last half-century in a World Cup. His 53 from 77 balls included six fours, as his 107-run opening partnership with Graham Gooch crushed any hope of an Australian comeback. No prizes for guessing the man of the match in England’s eight-wicket win.

After accusing him of being late, overweight and unprofessional, journalists were now lauding Botham’s transition from (pantomime) villain to hero. Headlines such as “Wizard of Oz!” were emblazoned the front pages as the tabloids rejoiced in the “Empire striking back”. Having been called a “pot-bellied yobbo” by one Australian journalist after his “convicts” comment, Botham was now the king once more. “The mood is desperate,” admitted Border after Australia’s defeat. “Botham is the ultimate competitor. He saves his best for us.”

“I haven’t done anything differently,” said Botham when asked to explain the secret of his success. “I am still drinking as much. It was just one of those days when everything went my way. When you get to my physical condition, you have to save it up for special occasions.” With a glint in his eye, Botham added: “I hope the Queen was watching.”

It would be Botham’s last telling contribution in an England shirt, his Sydney swansong a delicious one for old times’ sake. “It was amazing to see how frightened the Aussies were of him,” recalled Alec Stewart in his autobiography, Playing for Keeps. “He could have walked out to bat with a stump and would have still scored runs against them that night. His bowling was not too frightening, but they played the reputation and they were ridiculously tentative against him, as if he was still the miracle worker of 1981. For the first time I was seeing at first hand the effect that Beefy could produce, and I could appreciate what a force he must have been in his prime.”

Unsurprisingly, Botham did not hit the same heights again in the tournament, an innings of 43 against Sri Lanka and 3/23 in the shock defeat to Zimbabwe his only telling contributions. His last appearance at the World Cup would end in disappointment, with Botham dismissed for a duck as England were beaten by Pakistan in the final.

But at least he triumphed over England’s greatest rival, a result that went a long way to eliminating the joint hosts at the group stage. As the years progressed, Australia’s fortunes rose and England’s declined, making moments like Sydney 1992 feel a distant memory for English cricket fans. As every year passed after Botham’s retirement in 1993, he looked more and more irreplaceable. He was already past his best in 1992, but in Sydney he proved he could still be king for one last day.

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