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Martin Johnson column – Botham! There’s an all-round talent for you Trev…

Every now and then, I find myself being overpowered by that dark and irresistible force known as ‘Fred Trueman Syndrome’. All manner of things can trigger off an attack, but it most often strikes shortly after someone mentions that cricket might, in some areas, be a better game today than it used to be.

Symptoms involve a sudden intake of breath, an initial attempt to speak without any words actually emerging, a rise in temperature which can only be controlled by venting the steam from both ears, a change of complexion from pink to the colour of a freshly boiled beetroot, and eventually the emission of an extremely loud noise that you’d place somewhere between an harrumph and a snort.

I had such an attack not so long ago, and have only just been taken off the medication and released back into society. The prognosis is for a full recovery, but any more instances of someone saying that the current England team are spoiled by having so many all-rounders could easily trigger a relapse.

And if there is a sudden recurrence, you also, along with all the other symptoms, get to hear voices. “All-rounder? All ruddy rounder? Now listen ’ere sunshine. Just because some tailend Charlie can slog a few now and again doesn’t make ’im an all-rounder. Besides which he gets most of ’em down to third man. Whatever ’appened to the third man any’ow? In my day……”.

The definition of an all-rounder was more clear cut in Fred’s day, when batters batted, and bowlers bowled, and if a team slumped to 90-7, it wasn’t up to the tailenders to get their heads down and try and make the best of a bad job. They were expected to slog and get out, which is mostly what they did.

It’s a different mindset now, not least in the field, where bowlers like Fred who was in the middle of a spell and blowing a bit down at the now defunct third man, would confine his attempts to cut off a boundary to an outstretched boot. None of this full length diving stuff, after which, having taken out half a dozen cameramen and an advertising board in an attempt to save a couple of runs, you end up with third degree burns on both elbows and an eye-watering laundry bill.

So what does qualify a player to be thought of as an all-rounder these days? Not a lot, some would say, which is why we have situations such as Moeen Ali being hokey-cokeyed up and down the batting order as the result of being selected on the basis that some deluded selector has decided he’s a front-line, match-winning off-spinner.

In which case, put me in Fred’s corner. Moeen is a high-class batsman who deserves to be selected on that basis, with the fact that he happens to be a halfway decent twirler representing a handy extra option for his captain rather than Jim Laker with a beard.

The English game is full of ersatz all-rounders, along the lines of Stuart Broad, who was once thought of as equally proficient in two disciplines as opposed to a terrific fast bowler whose batting is hit and miss at best. If Broad’s batting is guaranteed to do anything, it’s using up DRS reviews.

All modern coaches expect their players to contribute in more than one area, hence Trevor Bayliss’ comments on Liam Dawson after his ODI debut against Pakistan. “He bats, he bowls, and is a pretty good fielder as well,” said the England coach, as though a bit of this and a bit of that is a better blueprint for ODIs than a seriously good specialist.

There’s a world of difference between England’s current crop of cricketers with a handy second string to the bow than a genuine all-rounder. There was a time when most top teams had just the one, usually positioned somewhere between numbers five and seven, and the difference was that these were cricketers who could decide the destiny of a match with either bat or ball.

It’s hard to believe just how many high-class all-rounders were played county cricket from the late Sixties through to the Eighties, including the greatest of them all, Garry Sobers, who played for Nottinghamshire from 1968 until 1974.  You could pack your sandwich tin and set off for Trent Bridge, Swansea, Buxton, or wherever – and watch a batsman whose Test average was nearly 58, who bowled left-arm swing and seam, orthodox slow left arm, and left arm wrist spin.

And, close to the wicket, he caught pigeons, as the saying goes.

Other great all-rounders who played county cricket included Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Mike Procter, Kapil Dev and Jacques Kallis. Plus, of course, the finest of the genre ever produced by England, Ian Botham, who was almost as good a cricketer as he himself thought he was, which was his greatest gift.

Botham got wickets and runs with two single attributes. One was ability, and the other was self-belief.

Of his 383 Test wickets at 28.40, it would be interesting to work out how many were taken with rubbish deliveries, but Beefy’s great attribute was to send down a long hop while somehow managing to convince the batsman that it was actually a hand grenade.

On top of which, on the rare occasions he dropped a catch, the sun was in his eyes, and when he played a horrible shot to get out, the ball that got him had dipped, reared, looped the loop, and swung both ways. What really set Botham apart, though, was that while most of the great all-rounders had the three attributes of batting, bowling and fielding, Botham was the only one with a fourth.

Which went like this. When a team came to visit, Botham would kindly offer to take their star player for a night out before the game, and sit him on a bar stool until such time as his new chum could see at least three of him, and be rendered totally incapable of speech. In short, Beefy could not only win a match with batting, bowling, fielding, but also by reducing the opposition to ten men.

Now that’s what you call an all-rounder.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, September 9 2016

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