A week on, the ripples are still spreading through English cricket, running outwards from Cape Town, their progress unchecked even by the team’s underwhelming performance in the final three days of the second Test.
Ben Stokes’s innings – 258 from 198 balls, 30 fours, 11 sixes – was one of those rare ones that captured, enraptured, the wider English public.
The excitement of it infected all sports fans. Ian Botham has described it as Stokes’s own Headingley ’81, “an innings that will change his life”, if not the way he lives it, “because he is a pretty uncomplicated character who just likes to go toe-to-toe with the opposition. That is certainly what motivated me and I am sure it’s what motivates him.”
Stokes proved Botham’s point by first thanking the fans for their support, then refusing to apologise for sledging the South Africans. “Copped a lot of stick over the last few days about sledging, I play the game hard but always have respect for oppo.”
Botham didn’t break the mould. He can’t have because English cricket spent years trying to fill it. The search for the next Botham finally ended on 30 July 2004. The second day of the second Test at Edgbaston, between Michael Vaughan’s England and Brian Lara’s West Indies. The day Andrew Flintoff walloped 167 from 191 balls, with 17 fours and seven sixes, one of them hit all the way into the stand where the players’ families were sitting and dropped by his father, Colin, who said: “I should have caught it. I saw it coming all the way, but it bounced out of my hand and ended up in the lap of Michael Vaughan’s mum.”
Freddie, asked about it after the day’s play, grinned and said: “He plays at the weekend and comes home every week telling me what a great catch he has taken. But he has now proved to everyone that he is terrible. I thought he was going to come over the balcony at one stage.”
There had been other, earlier, hints. The match Flintoff won in Mumbai, where he whipped off his shirt and then ran around the ground waving it above his head. The 137 he made in that strange game at Christchurch, his first Test century. The 142 in a losing cause against South Africa at Lord’s in 2003, his first five-wicket haul, at Bridgetown in 2004. But the innings at Edgbaston, and that six, was the one that left you wondering “who writes your scripts?”, as Graham Gooch asked Botham when he had Bruce Edgar caught off the first ball he bowled after coming back from his ban for smoking dope. Flintoff played, Wisden noted, with real joie de vivre, “pounding in with the speedo in the high eighties, sweeping up sharp slip catches, and swatting the ball to every corner”.
When the year was over, the almanack was able to announce that “the talk was no longer of the new Botham”, that “the English game had finally moved on”. An entire generation of all-rounders, from Derek Pringle through David Capel to Phil DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork, even Ronnie Irani, had been weighed in comparison to Botham and found wanting.
“It was absolutely crackers. I felt under so much pressure to live up to the comparison,” DeFreitas said in 2006. “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.”
Everyone agreed that the comparisons weren’t helpful, but that didn’t make them any less irresistible. When asked how he felt about it, Flintoff said “I don’t see it like that; as far as I’m concerned I’m just having fun, playing cricket with my mates.” Which was, inevitably, a most Botham-esque sort of answer.
The vital thing was this, it wasn’t just the runs Botham scored, the catches he held or the wickets he took, it was the manner of the man, and the way he played the game. “I started trying to play like him,” DeFreitas said. “Walking out to bat thinking I’d better try and smash it all over the place.”
Botham made such an impression that he shaped our understanding of how an ideal all-rounder should play – aggressive, undaunted, electric, with swagger and in style. Like something plucked from a schoolboy’s dream.
There have been other all-rounders. Trevor Bailey played 61 Tests and finished with near identical batting and bowling averages, both 29. Tony Grieg scored eight Test centuries and took 141 wickets. England have another good one in the side now in Moeen Ali. But Botham, Flintoff and Stokes form their lineage, each indisputably their own, but all alike.
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