Someone calling himself James Hacker asked me on twitter this morning if I was more obsessed about politics or sport. It’s a close call. I’m certainly having a sporty week so far. Last night cricket. Shortly heading to the Emirates for a speech. Tonight the Sport Industry Awards, as a member of the judging panel. At the weekend I am doing a charity gig at the Cup Final and then heading to Middlesbrough to play in a fundraiser for former Burnley player Gary Parkinson. Oh, and I’m writing this whilst pedalling away on my wattbike.
I think people in politics can learn a lot from sport, in particular in relation to issues of leadership, strategy and teamwork.
That is one of several reasons I was thrilled to be asked to chair a q and a of three top sportsmen last night after the premiere of From The Ashes, a superb documentary about the 1981 England v Australia Test series.
It has at its heart the story of the remarkable comeback by Ian Botham, sacked as captain after two disastrous Tests, in one of which he got the only ‘pair’ of his Test career, then responsible for some of the greatest acts of batting and bowling in history as he helped turn a one match deficit into a 3-1 triumph.
We were joined on the panel by Bob Willis and David Gower, and film-maker James Erskine. I hope someone puts the discussion online because all of them had some really interesting insights about past, present and future. Willis is not happy about the ‘three captains’ to match the three lions.
Botham was on great form – reflective, analytical, funny, almost mellow for him. I managed to provoke Willis into a good political rant, in which he delivered the funniest line of the night – John Major was one of our greatest ever PMs – and David Gower was just brilliantly David Gowerish – warm, self deprecating, insightful. I asked Willis if he minded that 1981 was known as Botham’s Ashes, given he also bowled out of his skin to claim 8 wickets for 43 in one of the most remarkable spells in history. He said he was used to being Both’s stooge. The friendship between them was clear though, and strong.
I hope the DVD is a success, and not just because it helps raise money and profile for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Oh, and if you text BEEFY to 70099 you donate 3 quid to the charity. Go on.
For me the real theme of the film is leadership. Botham is without doubt a leader of men, in that he can move and inspire and step up to a challenge. But that does not make him someone automatically capable of being THE leader, the captain.
He was replaced as captain by Mike Brearley, a cerebral foil to Botham’s instinct and passion. Interviews with the Aussies revealed that they considered Brearley to be something of a joke. He was not a great batsman, bowler or fielder. He was old for a top flight sportsman. He ran oddly. To an Aussie ear, he spoke oddly. But his opposite number Kim Hughes only belatedly realised Brearley was a true leader. He said the turning point of the series was Botham losing the captaincy, Brearley taking over and letting Botham have his head.
The England captain, he said with a smile, ‘had nothing going for him apart from being intelligent’.
Hughes was one of the real stars of the film. The lack of support he received from Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee still clearly hurts him to this day. The footage of his tearful resignation as captain had a fair few close to tears last night. The panel was interesting on how they exploited these divisions – Botham by ‘sledging’, Brearley (according to Gower) by analysing strategic weakness.
Hughes also had a fascinating insight into how a negative media can play an active role in sports strategy. He said his basic approach was to try to keep Botham in his box ‘and the English media would do the rest.’ It worked until the third test.
Botham and I are at very different ends of the political spectrum. But I have got to know him well through working together for the charity, and for all the bombast and banter, I never talk to him without hearing something worth hearing. We went out for dinner afterwards and in between the sporting chat we managed to solve the Middle East, democratise North Africa and bring stability to Pakistan. Or at least Ian thought we did.
Meanwhile I am nearing one of those head in towel moments all of us in politics and sport face from time to time. It looks like Alan Sugar and I are heading for a last-day-of-season play off for the Football Focus Premier League predictions title. I have skipped PMQs. The formbook lies open. Sport is beating politics today Mr Hacker.