Ian Botham: ‘I had to introduce myself to my children after tours’

Interview by Donna Ferguson

The former cricketer on his close family, his father’s Alzheimer’s and the pleasure of having enough time for his grandchildren

‘Professional cricketers spend more time with their team-mates than with their families’ … Ian Botham. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

I grew up in Somerset and I don’t do the inside of the house very well. I’m a country boy. I was always out conkering or nicking apples from the orchard or playing in the fields with our dog, Rusty. Home for me was somewhere you went to in your dirty clothes to sleep and eat. My mother was a dental nurse. She knew how to enjoy life. She had a great sense of humour and was always full of beans. My father was an engineer from a military background who was constantly tinkering about with cars and fancied himself as an odd-jobs man. I always got on very well with them.

I’m not particularly close to my siblings. I have a brother and two sisters. I’m the eldest. There’s a 10-year age gap between me and my brother – and, from the age of 11, I wasn’t at home very much; I was on the road playing cricket for Somerset. Professional cricketers spend more time with their team-mates than with their families. With the exception of my wife, I was closer to a couple of my team-mates than anyone else in my life. They were closer to me than brothers. My great mate Viv Richards and I used to spend many an hour chewing the cud.

My father used to sit in the same place in the grandstands so he could watch me bowl. He’d sit up there some days on his own. It didn’t matter to him that he was the only one there; he wanted to be there, to enjoy it. Both my parents did. They always encouraged me and they were very proud of what I achieved. Whenever it was my moment, it was their moment, too.

I didn’t see my father for the last six months of his life. He had dementia, which is the most horrendous disease. He couldn’t remember anything by the end. He had to be sedated to be showered. He just shuffled around and had no idea who anybody was. I didn’t want to remember him that way, and he didn’t know who I was anyway. There was nothing I could do for him. He was just a shuffling shell. I blotted that out, I didn’t want to see it. And I stand by what I did. I don’t regret a thing. When I gave the eulogy at his funeral, I was able to remember him the way I wanted to, as the great father that he was.

My father’s illness took years off my mother’s life. She had a heart attack that I’m convinced was partly due to the stress of everything that went on with him. When she walked into a room where her husband of 50-odd years was and he didn’t even know her name – that was soul-destroying.

Becoming a grandad has made me feel younger. Kath and I were married at the age of 21, and so now we’re in our 60s we have six grandchildren aged between 21 months and 23 years old. We see each other all the time. Everyone lives within 15 minutes of our house. We all enjoy sport and we’ll go hunting, fishing, shooting and golfing together. We’re a pretty close family. I’m closer to my kids now than I was when they were growing up.

I was away a lot when my kids were young. I used to have to introduce myself to them when I came back from five-month tours. They’d see me on TV, but it wasn’t the same. I can be more hands on with my grandchildren than I was as a father: that’s one of the great bonuses.

My 19-year-old grandson Jim, who plays rugby for Wales, has the same determination and single-mindedness that I had, and my son Liam was also a professional sportsman. He spent more time in the Somerset dressing room, growing up, than he did at school. But I don’t see myself in either of them. I’ve seen too many people try to live their lives again through their children, particularly in sport. I’m a great believer in letting kids stand up very quickly on their own two feet and get on with it. But if they need advice or want my help, I’ll be there for them.

Ian Botham is supporting the Alzheimer’s Society’s United Against Dementia campaign. Find out more at Alzheimers.org.uk