Sir Ian Botham was a few days shy of his 44th wedding anniversary when he received a late-night call from the Prime Minister’s office offering him a peerage. He thought someone was winding him up.
‘The call came totally and utterly out of the blue,’ he says. ‘I was with Kath in Melbourne in late January, going back to the hotel after a day’s golf and a dinner for the bush fires charity.
‘The call was from the Prime Minister’s office asking if I’d be willing to accept a peerage. First I thought, “Is someone winding me up?” Then, as they continued to speak, I realised it sounded pretty spot-on.’
Ian, 64, is as proud as punch at the thought of becoming a lord. Kath is proud, too.
‘They already call me Lady Kath in New Zealand, which isn’t right,’ she says. ‘It should be Sir Ian and Lady Botham after Ian’s knighthood. I’ll have to ask Jeffrey Archer, who puts me right on these things, whether I’m entitled to be Lady Kath once Ian is a lord. I’m not sure.’
Needless to say, the Bothams have little truck with the cronyism hullabaloo that accompanied news of the Government’s proposed peerages, which included Boris Johnson elevating his younger brother, Jo, to the House of Lords.
‘Jealousy,’ barks Ian, who was knighted in 2007 and whose charity walks for leukaemia research have raised more than £25 million.
‘I’ll get stuck in when things of interest to me come up, where I know what I’m talking about,’ he adds. Ian — nickname Beefy — loves his country. I’m pretty sure if you cut him in half you would find the Union Jack tattooed on each of his organs.
Sir Ian Botham (right) was with his wife Kath (left) in Melbourne in late January when a call came from the Prime Minister’s office offering him a peerage. They are pictured at Sarah Botham’s wedding in the Scottish Highlands in April 2018
On VE Day this year, Ian sat with his family (there are three grown-up children — Liam, 42, Sarah, 41, and Becky, 35 — and eight grandchildren who range in age from 26 years down to 14 months) on the lawn of their centuries-old home overlooking a village green in North Yorkshire, with a picnic basket and Dame Vera Lynn belting out The White Cliffs Of Dover from the sound system.
‘All the other villagers were on their lawns, too. The picnic baskets had Union Jacks on the lids. It was a great day,’ he says. ‘I’m very British — very, very British.’
So much so that he supported Prime Minister Boris Johnson wholeheartedly during his Brexit campaign.
‘I’d say Boris is a friend,’ he says. ‘He’s great company. I like his sense of humour. He’s quick. He’s sharp. I’ve known him for quite some time now. I like people you don’t have to be on your guard with all the time so you can sit down and relax, like I am now.’
We are sitting in the courtyard of the house in Ravensworth that has been their family home for 33 years with a bottle of his chilled chardonnay. Ian set up a wine company two years ago and, remarkably, sold more than a million bottles in the first 14 months. The bottle we are drinking is recognised as one of the top 100 wines in the world, while his cabernet has just won its first gold medal.
He is, as Kath, 65, notes, ‘tunnel visioned’. When he goes for something he truly goes for it.
During a 15-year Test career of 102 matches he took 383 wickets, scored 5,200 runs and took 120 catches. He is the most celebrated English cricketer there has ever been and one of the world’s greatest all-rounders.
‘He sees a goal and that’s it,’ says Kath. ‘People like that are not always easy to live with. There have always been little hiccups.’
Ian Botham is pictured on Alderney with his wife Kathy and daughters Becky, eight, and Sarah, 15, and their dog Tigger
That’s certainly one way of putting it. Ian is a charismatic handful of a man who played hard on and off the pitch. So much so, he called his memoir My Autobiography: Don’t Tell Kath.
‘We lived apart a lot,’ says Kath. ‘What I always said is, “No matter what’s gone on, to the outside world we’re together.” But once the doors were closed, I took him to task several times. I wasn’t stupid, let’s put it that way.’
Ian interrupts: ‘I’m no angel but a lot of what was reported was utter garbage.’
Kath nods: ‘We had that famous Lindy Field thing in 1986.’ Kath is referring to the lurid claims made by the former Miss Barbados of a rampant affair (she said they broke the bed) and claims of drug-taking (cocaine). Ian was actually with his father-in-law at the time Ms Field alleged the sexual marathon took place.
‘I remember Bob Willis [former England captain] came round. I wanted to fight the world. I was furious,’ says Ian. ‘I said, I can prove to you I wasn’t there. I was with my father-in-law. There were allegations left, right and centre that were ridiculous. One article said I was on heroin. I mean, God almighty.’
Kath shoots him a quizzical eyebrow: ‘You were a naughty boy with that little bit of wacky baccy or whatever.’
She was so furious when police discovered a small amount of cannabis in their home at the height of Ian’s career in the 1980s, she overturned a coffee table.
Kath is a slight woman with an expressive face. When they moved into this house with its 30 acres more than three decades ago, the courtyard in which we sit was surrounded by derelict buildings.
The renovation work was, says Ian, ‘fun, great fun. Needless to say, I don’t have really any say in it. I just get told what’s happening’.
He is just as happy to leave the finances to Kath. ‘That’s why I have all the lines on my face,’ she jokes. But no doubt Ian’s behaviour has accounted for more than a few grey hairs over the years.
‘When something happened and Ian was away, he’d get on the phone and say, “There’s going to be something in the papers over the next few days.’’ ’
She sighs. ‘It happened too often, to be honest.’
Today, their marriage is one of the strongest in sport but Ian concedes it’s ‘a miracle’ they have celebrated more than 40 years together. ‘I always remember once, when I was at my wits’ end, I went to have a coffee with my mum and my Grandma Gigi, who thought Ian was wonderful,’ says Kath.
‘I remember them saying, “If your life is going to be better by not being with Ian, then we’ll support you. If it’s going to be the same or not as good, then really think about it.” That’s my advice to anybody — female, male, whatever — going through a really, really torrid time in their marriage to try to think beyond what is happening there and then. It might be awful. He might have gone off and had a fling like he did [she nods at Ian] in the early 2000s but you’ve got to look beyond that.’
It is two decades since Ian confessed to an affair with Australian waitress Kylie Verrells, which began when he was in Sydney commentating for Sky on the 1998 Ashes tour.
The relationship lasted for two years and almost cost Ian everything he holds so dear when it became public in 2001.
‘I screwed up,’ he says. ‘I was, to be honest with you, in a very deep hole that was very difficult to get out of. I created the problem myself. It was dumb, naive and nearly cost me my marriage but we’re still here stronger and better.’ He smiles gently at Kath. She says: ‘I knew. I could tell back in 2000. I actually said to my sister on the Boxing Day, “I know Ian’s having an affair.” I’d heard him on the phone talking to her.
‘I didn’t realise it had gone on quite as long as it had but, yeah, I knew. I’ve never felt like that before and certainly haven’t since because he knows he’d be out on his ear.
‘I’ll tell you a funny thing. It all [news of the affair] came out in the Press in early January 2001. Ian was going off to a charity thing in Spain or Portugal. I used to love to walk around the golf courses with Ian and then sit in the clubhouse listening to all the banter when the boys came in.
He is the most celebrated English cricketer there has ever been and one of the world’s greatest all-rounders after a a 15-year Test career of 102 matches in which he took 383 wickets, scored 5,200 runs and took 120 catches
‘This very attractive drinks waitress came round. She was Spanish. Ian just said, “She’s not bad-looking.” Silence. I looked at him and straight away came out with, “You’re a very good judge of waitresses, aren’t you?” The whole table went, “Oh my God”, then laughed.’
Kath was carrying the groceries from the car on a Saturday afternoon when Ian confessed to his affair shortly after the New Year. He had learned his lover had sold her story to a newspaper.
Ian says, ‘You make mistakes in life. I made a mistake.’
‘Yeah, you did,’ Kath shoots back. Was it a midlife crisis? ‘Kath asked me that question,’ says Ian. ‘I don’t know. Maybe. My career finished at 37. I’d just gone to Sky. Maybe I still wanted to play.’
Kath interrupts. ‘You wore that stupid skirt thing [Ian was pictured with Kylie wearing a sarong], didn’t you? . . Ridiculous.’ She shakes her head.
‘I’d gone to get some goodies for supper and when I got back you came to get the bags out of the car with me. You said, “I think I need to tell you something.”
‘I was very cool, calm and collected when you told me. I said, “You tell the children.”
Ian did. ‘I felt better for doing that and, to be honest with you, everything’s become, well, it’s a lot better than it was. I think we genuinely enjoy each other’s company and doing some bizarre things, don’t we? We go walking in January in the Outer Hebrides. Stuff like that. With the dogs.’ Again, he smiles at her fondly.
Kath adds: ‘I was never hysterical. I think there was only one evening I came downstairs about 4am as I couldn’t sleep and I did kind of scream and shout at you. It made me feel a lot better because you couldn’t answer back. I think the children probably struggled more than I did. Our daughter, Sarah, was working for Sky on the cricket. She found it very, very difficult. For quite a few months she had no wish to talk to her father.
‘And to quote Liam, he said it was a good job he was carrying his baby daughter at the time he was told, “otherwise I think I’d have punched him’’.
‘Good luck to that,’ says Ian.
Kath carries on: ‘To give credit where it’s due, you rang [she’s looking at Ian] our close friends up and told them and obviously both sets of parents. We were very methodical about it. Liam was playing rugby on the Sunday and we’d arranged to meet about 20-odd people for a pre-match lunch, so I said, “We’ve got to let our friends know.” ’
Ian nods. ‘When I rang they said, “We won’t come.” I was, “No, come, come.” I rang everybody up — my boss at Sky. I told everybody. I’d rather they hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, than hear the rumours and misinterpretations.
‘To be honest, I was very happy to be out of it — very, very happy. She [his lover] tried to ring me a couple of times afterwards. I just said, “Don’t ring me again or I’ll change this number. I don’t need you.” That was the end of it.’
Didn’t Kath want to wring his neck? ‘When you’ve got children you’ve got to get on with life, haven’t you? My objective throughout the whole thing — and bear in mind we got married and had children young — the most important things were the children and grandchildren. We’d just had our new granddaughter. I thought, “I don’t want to do anything now.”
‘In my own mind, I had a time plan. If, after five years, our marriage wasn’t working, that would be the time to say goodbye and go our separate ways.’
Ian says: ‘The thing I noticed is Kath wanted to do more things with me, like the walks.’ He means his charity walks for leukaemia, which began in 1985. He looks at Kath and says: ‘You walked the whole distance [from John O’ Groats to Land’s End]. That was the period I thought, “She’s out there and she’s doing it.” She’s a bloody good walker too.’
Kath listens to him, reflecting on how they slowly pieced their fractured relationship back together.
‘I can honestly put my hand up and say I take absolutely no responsibility for what happened. It was none of my doing. I can talk about it now. I always have been able to, probably more so than Ian. It got to the stage where I would say something and he . . . let’s just say he doesn’t like to look behind.
‘Ian’s amazing with his grandchildren but he wasn’t a particularly brilliant husband or father. He was a team man. I’ve always said — and it’s no different now to his playing days — if it was a decision between the team and the family, the team would come first.’