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Botham’s Ashes film has some great lessons on leadership and team-work

Posted on 11 May 2011 | 11:05am

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.

  • Olli Issakainen

    By strange coincidence I am currently listening to James Hacker on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
    Questions have recently been asked about the leadership qualities of Ed Miliband – including by commenters on this website.
    Some people yearn for his brother David. Surely he would have been a better choice?
    New Labour lost 5m voters during its time in government. But only 1m went to the Tories.
    Ed Miliband is best placed to win back the voters who deserted to the Lib Dems. Ed Miliband is also best placed to win back C2 working class supporters who have stopped voting for Labour.
    Ed Miliband is best placed to win the next election.
    Precondition for many former Labour voters to return back has been an apology for the Iraq war and “economic mess”. Ed Miliband has done this. David Miliband would never have done so.
    During the Labour leadership contest it became clear that Ed Balls´s second preferences would decide the winner. Ed Miliband immediately asked Mr Balls to put a word for him.
    David Miliband never asked. Some might call this integrity, some arrogance. What became clear was that you cannot win a leadership contest on this kind of attitude – never mind general election.
    And there is no longer such a thing as trade union bloc vote – ordinary people voted for Ed Miliband.
    Ed Miliband is playing the long game. He has a plan. He will be of the right age when the general election comes.
    Ed Miliband is right to target the squeezed middle. After the cuts people in the South will also vote for Labour.
    People yearning for return of Blairism with its emphasis on aspiration should realise that New Labour believed in neoliberalism which almost broke the world´s financial system.

    Ps. The BoE has now lowered the growth forecasts for 2011 and 2012. As for Nick Clegg´s speech, it was lies, lies and more lies once again. Labour was committed to deficit reduction, and had a credible plan by Alistair Darling to halve the deficit in four years without risking the recovery. And Britain´s debt in 2009-10 was only 53.5% of GDP, so there was no “economic emergency” then. The bond markets were not panicking, and there were not forcing cuts on the scale of £81bn. It was a political choice. A wrong one! No wonder that according to ComRes survey 63% do not trust Mr Clegg.

  • Ehtch

    Calm down Alastair, for gawds sake. Hyper or what? Anyway, crikkers is my sport, always has been. although footie was as well. when my joints were young.

  • Yonks

    I remember well the Old Trafford Test, I had the pleasure and joy of watching Willis terrify them. Good old Kim Hughes walked out to bat as if he really didn’t want to be there!

  • LancashireLad

    I’m not getting the same sport that I enjoyed with Mr Rentoul so I think I may need another blog to patronise.

    I look forward to being demonised for telling the truth but the truth I will tell and it may get pretty uncomfortable for Mr Campbell (nurse get me a super injunction).

    Let battle commence!

    Lancashire Lad

  • Gilliebc

    “Ed Miliband is best placed to win the next election” You must be joking!
    There is nothing statesmanlike about EM. He’s a disaster for the Labour Party. To be honest the only person on the Labour front bench who looks remotely like a leader or a future PM is Ed Balls (imho). But I get the impression that EB being so closely connected to GB in the recent past has not made him overly popular with the general public.
    However, if EB became leader sooner rather than later, then he may just be in with a chance of getting across the message to the electorate that (a) The debt/deficit was not Labour’s fault. (It was the bankers) and (b) A Labour Government would not be making the mistakes that this Tory Led Government are making now by cutting too far and too fast and therefore putting pay to any hope of a swift recovery.

    Labour need to sort themselves out PDQ or we will be in for 10 years or more of the “same old Torries” and who accept for the very wealthy needs or wants that?