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BRITAIN. Cricketer in sticky wicket over illicit drug use

One of England's star cricketers, and a hero to millions of school children, has admitted to smoking marijuana. Ian Botham's signed public confession to a mass-circulation newspaper threatens to put an end to his cricketing career and is stirring public debate about the responsibility of people in the public eye to set an example in the conduct of their private lives. The England cricketing authorities have suspended Mr. Botham from playing international matches, pending a full investigation of his confessed use of illicit drugs.

An excellent batsman, bowler, and fielder, Botham can lay claim to being the most famous and successful cricketer currently playing. He has won many a match for England and his home county, Somerset, virtually single-handed by his dazzling combination of talents.

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Botham is also more than a cricketer. Last year he decided to make use of his superstar status. In a charity walk across Britain (from John o' Groats to Land's End), he raised 714,000 for victims of leukemia.

But storm clouds have been gathering around Botham for some years. Always a flamboyant character, he has regularly earned rebukes from umpires in many parts of the world for challenging their decisions.

Four years ago in Australia, he was fined 250 for publicly criticizing an umpire. Two years later he was fined 1000 for complaining about playing conditions in Pakistan.

During the Pakistan tour there were allegations (never substantiated) that some England players had been taking drugs. The following year police entered Botham's home in England and found a small quantity of marijuana. Botham, who said he had been given the drug by a friend, was convicted and fined 100. But, after warning him, the cricket authorities decided to let their 'stormy petrel' continue playing for England.

Botham's confession that he had indeed been a marijuana user stunned the public and angered the England cricket managers who are preparing the team for an international series against a visiting Indian side.

The cricketer's retraction of previous denials that he had been using illicit drugs came within 24 hours of an announcement that he had been questioned by police about alleged drug use during last year's charity walk. Ironically, the confession appeared in the Mail on Sunday -- the same paper which in 1984 alleged that Botham had taken drugs during a cricket tour of New Zealand.

Botham at that time took legal action against the paper, but it was recently announced that his libel suit had been dropped.

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The renewed controversy surrounding Botham comes at a bad moment for English cricket. Earlier this year an England side touring the West Indies lost five international matches in a row.

That dismal performance has worried the game's administrators, who fear that dwindling crowds will cause money intake to fall, undermining the game. Cricket badly needs a player of Botham's stature.

This has led some commentators to argue that Botham's confession should not be taken too seriously, and that, for the game's sake, he should be let off with another warning. Others however take a harsher view.

They point out that Botham is a sporting idol to millions of school boys in England and beyond. If he is permitted to flout the law, they argue, the law will be put in disrepute.

In his own defense, Botham said his signed confession had referred to events long past.

A leading article in the Times (London) said: `He (Botham) should make it clear that he regrets the disrepute that he brought upon himself and upon the game. He should disavow the use of illegal drugs. He should take the degree of individual responsibility for his private actions which he takes for his actions on the field of play.'

If Botham is forced to abandon his cricket career, it will be a personal as well as a sporting tragedy. Aged 30, he is two short of the existing world record of 355 dismissals by a bowler in international matches. For England he has scored 4,577 runs and taken 99 catches in the field. No player of his generation comes near such achievements.

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