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Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Friday, 15 June 2007 00:03 UK

A lionheart on and off the pitch

By Oliver Brett

In August 1977 a young father just making his way into the England cricket team hobbled into Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton for an X-ray on a broken toe.

Ian Botham
I had a lady who gave me a diamond and emerald ring on the A9. Her husband had just died from leukaemia. I was taken aback but she insisted I have it

Ian Botham

The 21-year-old stumbled upon a ward of four children suffering from leukaemia - and was staggered to hear they only had a short time to live.

Eight years later, Ian Botham - who has been knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours - began a personal crusade to combat the disease.

In 1985, England were in the process of winning their third home Ashes series in a row - and Botham, the dashing all-rounder from Somerset, had so often been the match-winner.

But 1985 was also the year Botham set out on the first of 11 charity walks to raise money to combat leukaemia.

In the 22 years since then he has raised well over £10m to help battle the disease and it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that many young people today owe him their life.

The thousands of miles walked by Botham and his supporters have helped to dramatically transform the survival rates of leukaemia survivors.

When parents are now given the frightening news that their child has the disease, they can at least be reassured they have an 80% survival rate. Back in 1977, 80% died.

Sir George 'Gubby' Allen
Sir Colin Cowdrey
Sir Jack Hobbs
Sir Len Hutton
Sir Francis Lacey
Sir Henry Leveson-Gower
Sir Frederick Toone
Sir Pelham Warner

Botham told Radio Five Live: "What I achieved on the cricket field and the status I achieved with the public allowed me to go and raise money for leukaemia.

"One wouldn't have worked without the other.

"To think we are getting close to beating leukaemia in the near future is exciting in itself and could open up many doors for other forms of cancer."

The unstinting generosity of those who have supported him has never ceased to amaze Botham.

"I had a lady who gave me a diamond and emerald ring on the A9 [in Scotland].

Botham after scoring a century at Lord's
Botham after scoring a century in his first Test innings at Lord's

"Her husband had just died from leukaemia. I was taken aback and she said 'I really insist you have it. We had a great life together and if this can help somebody else please take it.' "

"Beefy", as he is known in cricketing circles, was a hero to a generation of schoolboys brought up in the 1980s.

In 1981, he hit two of the most inspiring innings England fans have ever seen - in Leeds and Manchester - and added an astonishing burst of wickets in Birmingham in between as the Ashes were recovered in style.

He often reserved his best performances for matches against the Aussies, but there was no bowling attack - barring the superb West Indies - that could tame his unbridled batting.

His brisk outswing bowling earned him 383 wickets. At one time the world record, it remains, by some distance, the leading mark achieved by an England bowler.

Born on 24 November 1955 in Cheshire, Botham was brought up in Somerset - the county where he starred alongside West Indian legends Sir Viv Richards and Joel Garner.

He played his first Test in Nottingham in July 1977, bowling the great Australian Greg Chappell for his first wicket and taking five in the innings.

Ian Botham at Edgbaston, 1981
Running off with a stump after destroying the Aussies in '81

Only when troubled by the cares of captaincy in 1980 and early 1981 did his game suffer.

And when Mike Brearley became his skipper for the latter part of the '81 Ashes, Botham lifted his game majestically.

He lived the high life too - often entertaining both sets of teams at his north Yorkshire mansion when the Test came to Headingley.

But sometimes he over-indulged, and a revelation that he took cannabis in 1986 led to a brief ban from international cricket - largely imposed as a result of media pressure.

His marriage to Kath has sometimes been strained - and again, closely scrutinised by the tabloids - but it has stood the test of time.

"I'm delighted that I've been honoured - not only for myself but for the people that have helped me get there," he said.

"My wife Kath ran most of the walks and this will be very much a family celebration."

Passionate about the Royal Family, Botham is looking forward to visiting Buckingham Palace to receive his honour.

Ian Botham playing football for Scunthorpe
His many talents allowed him to briefly play for Scunthorpe

"I have been fortunate to go to the Palace on previous occasions and I'm excited to go there under these circumstances.

"It will be a very proud moment - it's very nice to be recognised for what we have all achieved."

He singled out two former England players who had influenced his early career - Tom Cartwright and Brian Close - but was sad two others could not help him celebrate.

"My father, Les, passed away 18 months ago and it would have been a proud moment for him and also [sportswriter] Ian Wooldridge, who was another long-standing friend and would have been pleased to raise a glass tonight."

Nowadays he has mellowed into a respected TV commentator and newspaper pundit, a knowledgeable wine connoisseur and yacht owner.

For many, he will always be remembered for thrashing Dennis Lillee and co around English cricket grounds in 1981.

But for leukaemia survivors the link with Botham is more important than sport. They all owe Sir Ian a huge debt of gratitude.

see also
Botham honoured with knighthood
15 Jun 07 |  Sport Homepage
Beefy at 50
24 Nov 05 |  Cricket
The strange case of Ian Botham's wine
02 Oct 03 |  Magazine
Headingley '81... 25 years on
20 Jul 06 |  Cricket
Ian Botham's career in photos
12 Dec 04 |  Photo Galleries

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