Botham's bottom line

IAN Botham was in Hong Kong this week. Ian Botham the cricketer or, at least, the former cricketer? No: Ian Botham the entrepreneur.

The enterprising Mr Botham, a self-confessed ''bit of a workaholic'', has no intention of being labelled an ex-cricketer for the rest of his life. In fact, he began making plans for life after cricket years ago and the resulting ventures mean he can now label himself ''an entrepreneur, a businessman''.

So his retirement last year - he left his county club, Durham, in July - posed no readjustment problems: ''Cricket in the past five years has only been a small part of my life,'' he says.

''Since I had my major back operation [in 1988] I felt then was the time I had to start planning for the future because I could not rely on sport for a great length of time.'' In fact, he was lucky to have the time he did in cricket and to have managed a career in which he achieved the double feat of 5,300 Test runs and 383 wickets, he says.

''They diagnosed my back problem in 1977-78, so I was lucky to get where I did on it.'' Mr Botham OBE (he collected his gong in the Queen's Birthday honours in 1992) was in Hong Kong as part of one of his most popular and successful ventures, the stage show The King and I which he presents with his old friend and former West Indian cricketing great, Viv Richards.

When they toured England with the show, staying in a different town for each of 33 nights, it sold out six months in advance, with audiences averaging 700 a night. Since then they have taken it to Australia and now a nine-nation Middle East and Asia tourthat has left Mr Botham so tired he is threatening to take a day off when he gets home to his village just south of Newcastle next week.

A day off is a rare thing for Ian Botham. So is being at home. Television, radio and charity work occupy most of his time, and he has even done a pantomime for two months for each of the past five years. But now there's a new venture: his memoirs. The 150,000-word volume written with a ghost writer will be published in September.

''There are quite a few people at Lords changing their underwear,'' he says. ''It is about time I was allowed to say what really happened. I've told it all as it happened.'' He has waited a long time for this chance to set the record straight after a career in which his treatment at the hands of the British press, among others, still rankles.

''They said it would be a bit of publicity for me when I did my first walk,'' he says of his charity walks to raise money for leukaemia research. ''No one walks 100 miles for personal publicity. But they've had to eat humble pie over that because I'm doing it every two years.'' The next of his now-famous walks is in September, from Liverpool to Yeovil in Somerset, so his annual August holiday at his house in the Channel Islands will be interrupted by training.

''When it comes to commitment, if I am committed to something I will do it,'' he says.

His walks show the truth of that: he began them in the mid-'80s after seeing a group of children with leukaemia during a stay in hospital. He has raised about GBP4 million (about HK$45.6 million) so far, and says the spin-off is putting leukaemia on themap.

But he makes no pretence about being a disciplined person.

''I believe in playing hard and working hard. I did that all my career,'' says the man whose exploits have ranged from being fined by a court for assaulting a passenger on an airline flight to being fined by the Test and County Cricket Board for bringing cricket into disrepute after calling Pakistan an ideal country to send your mother-in-law on an all-expenses-paid holiday.

And if that has made life hard for his wife, Kathy, and their three children, it is something they have weathered together, he says.

''My wife has known me since I was 19. She knew where I was going and what my career was. As she says, she knew what she was getting into.

''She respects the work I do,'' he says. ''Some of the things that have been written over the year by the press, they have hurt the family a lot. But we have come through it and that speaks a lot for the relationship Kath and I have.'' One-to-one, Mr Botham, looking tired but too trim to do justice to his nickname, Beefy, is friendly, down-to-earth, but subdued. He even drinks tea. A serious interview.

But put him in front of a press conference, even a small one with a few Hong Kong sports journalists, and the showman starts to reveal itself. Wisecracking, sparring with Viv Richards, he has no qualms about attacking the English selectors and coaches, and himself.

''I was built for comfort, not for speed,'' he says when the ''Beefy'' tag is inevitably raised.

It is that talent for showmanship that is boosting his television and radio credits fast. He has just been signed by the BBC to do eight sports chat shows on radio, and starts filming new episodes of the BBC TV quiz show A Question of Sport next week.

In fact, he says people associate him more with that show than with cricket these days.

There is also a new 10-week television show about wine, now up for tender by the major stations. ''My wife calls me a wine snob,'' he says.

''It's a good concept because people associate wine with a lot of money. They always think it is expensive, and there are a lot of good wines on the supermarket shelves and they don't know that; and that's the end of the market the show is concentrating on.'' ''What's time off?'' he asks, when asked what he does with it, but then admits he would rather be golfing or fishing than in the spotlight.

''Stardom is something that has never come easily to me. I know a lot of friends like Elton John who are good friends, but I don't see them any differently to Charlie who fishes with me in Scotland. That's the way I am.

''I don't particularly like the posey places. If I had a choice of the island of Gozo [near Malta] where I go sailing or St Tropez, there's no choice. I am happiest on a river bank in Scotland or England or Wales with my waders on and leaning on a 16ft rod.'' And while he will don his suit and play his part at events such as award ceremonies, they're just part of the job. ''People can't understand why I would rather have lamb stew at home with a bottle of wine or go to the pub with my mates and Kath might come down later and we'll have something to eat.'' ''I am very much a country boy.''