This week, NORMAN GILLER slips in a sneaky one, with Dickie Bird as his third man in a piece of cricketing history
With the third Test squelching away at Edgbaston, we are reminded of the astonishing spell of bowling there by Ian Botham during his legend-building Ashes series in the summer of 1981.
All these years on, I can reveal how Both at first refused to take the ball and had to be persuaded to bowl by captain Mike Brearley. The witness who confirms the story is one of the game’s great characters, umpire Harold “Dickie” Bird.
I scripted and co-produced (with Top Gear director Brian Klein) a Dickie Bird DVD called Greatest Cricketing Moments and Silliest Points.
We interviewed Sir Ian in the games room at his home, with Dickie â€” leaning against a snooker table â€” asking the questions that I had prepared. We had just taught him to use an Autocue and he was like a kid with a new toy.
On a monitor perched on the snooker table, we showed dramatic footage of Botham ripping through the Aussies with a remarkable spell of five wickets for one run. It was Dickie who declared: “You had told skipper Mike Brearley where to stick the ball.”
“That’s a bit strong,” said Both, “but it’s true that I said I didn’t want to bowl.”
Dickie, who was standing at the end Botham was bowling from during the Test, told us: “When Brearley threw the ball to Both, he tossed it back and said, ‘Not me, skip. You’ve got the wrong man’.”
“I thought Peter Willey could give it real rip,” explained Both. “It didnâ€™t make any sense to me that the skipper was asking me to bowl in what I considered the wrong conditions. But Mike insisted, and I was a bit sulky when I took the ball.”
With six wickets standing, Australia needed just 46 runs to win. The reluctant Botham bowled the best spell of his life, and five Australians trooped back to the pavilion as England stormed to an amazing victory by 29 runs.
Priceless stories spilled from Bird and Botham â€” what a double act – and most of them off camera. Some samples:
Botham said that towards the end of his career, when he was combining cricket with pantomime appearances, he rapped a batsman on the pads and shouted: “Owzat!” Dickie was the umpire, and he responded with a panto-style shout: “Oh no he isn’t!”
Ian reckoned he got some of the worst reviews of any panto star. He appeared in Babes in the Wood and one critic wrote: “Botham was more wooden than any tree in the forest.”
In the early days of mobile telephones, Dickie was standing in the middle umpiring a match at Northampton when Allan Lamb came in to bat. He handed Dickie one of the new-fangled phones and said, “Meant to leave this in the dressing-room. Look after it for me, Dickie.”
Those were the days when the mobile phone was the size of a brick. Five minutes later the telephone rang, and Dickie jumped a foot in the air. Lamby, at the other end, shouted: “Answer it Dickie, and tell them to ring back.”
Dickie, after much fumbling, did as he was asked, and fumed when he found it was Ian Botham on the line asking him the score, and if he could speak to Lamby.
According to Dickie â€” I don’t believe it â€” he said to Botham: “Hang on. He wonâ€™t be in for long.”
Botham told us that his mate Lamby was always playing tricks on Dickie. Once during the World Cup in India, Dickie was confined to bed with a tummy bug. The hotel he was in was ringed with armed security forces because of political unrest. His bedside ‘phone rang, and it was Lamby in sympathetic mood: “Iâ€™ve got something that I think will cure you. All right if I come to your room?”
“Thatâ€™s kind of you, Allan,” Dickie said, forgetting he was talking to the king of the leg pullers. “My doorâ€™s unlocked. Come on up.”
When Lamby arrived he was accompanied by a squad of six rifle-toting soldiers he had “borrowed” from the troops outside. He lined them up around Dickieâ€™s bed and said: “OK, letâ€™s put the poor bugger out of his misery. Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Dickie said the laugh did him good, but he was not laughing another time at breakfast in a Northampton hotel when the newspaper he was reading caught fire, and he had to throw his coffee over it to put it out. He blew his top when he found Lamby crouching under his table with a lighter in his hand.
It didnâ€™t end there. Dickie was umpiring at Old Trafford when Lancashire were playing Northants. As he and his colleague, Ray Julian, went to leave their dressing room they found the door had been locked from the outside. Suddenly smoke started coming under the door. The umpires were just about to panic when an Old Trafford groundsman burst in with a fire extinguisher and put out the small fire outside the door.
When Dickie got to the middle he found Lamb and his Northants team-mates rolling about laughing.
As they came off at the end of the session, Lamby put an arm around Dickieâ€™s shoulders and apologised for the latest prank. Dickie forgave him, and warned him to stop the jokes because he thought it was getting out of hand. They shook hands and Allan vowed to behave in future.
Leaving the ground at the end of the match, Dickie went to the car park where he found his motor minus wheels and up on bricks. Scrawled on the windscreen was the message: “Have a safe journey home, Dickie. See you next season.”
I asked Botham if it was true that he had once deliberately run out Geoff Boycott. The irrepressible Bird gave the answer: “Of course it’s true. England were on a run chase in a Test in New Zealand, and Boycs was at the wicket going at his usual snail pace. Vice-captain Bob Willis sent Both in at the fall of a wicket with the instructions, ‘Run the bugger out’.”
Botham grinned like a naughty schoolboy, adding: “I called Boycs for an impossible run, and he was out by miles. He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the tour. For that alone, it was worth it.”
It was Dickie who reminded Both of the funniest cricketing commentary ever when the late Voice of Cricket Brian Johnston was at the Test Match Special microphone with the young newcomer, Jonathan Agnew.
England were playing the West Indies at The Oval where Botham tried to play a hook shot off a rising Curtly Ambrose delivery, lost balance, and stepped over the stumps. His inner thigh brushed a bail and he had to walk.
Johnston was reading out the scorecard summary when â€” at the mention of Bothamâ€™s dismissal â€” Agnew said as a throw-away, “He just couldnâ€™t get his leg over.”
With Aggers giggling away in the background, Brian completely lost it and there was a full minute of barely suppressed laughter.
Ronnie Corbett summed up the reaction of listeners when he telephoned the BBC to say that he was driving along the motorway and laughed so much he had to pull over to the hard shoulder. It was an all-time classic.
Botham and Bird. Is this old hack right in thinking cricket does not have these sort of characters any more?
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.