Graham Dilley: Cricketer best remembered for his exploits in the England side of 1981

The name of Graham Dilley will remain forever lodged in the national sporting memory for the part his batting played in the heroics which turned round England's fortunes against Australia in the celebrated Ashes Test at Headingley in 1981. Though Dilley, who died of cancer yesterday at the age of 52, was primarily a bowler – one of the quickest of his generation – his tail-end batting proved to be Australia's undoing on that famous day in Yorkshire.

With England following on, and 500-1 to win, he shared a 117-run partnership with Ian Botham to help England to a thrilling victory. England were 135-7, 92 runs short of making Australia bat again, when Dilley joined Botham, who at that stage was on 15. "Right then, let's have a bit of fun," he said as Dilley arrived at the crease. And so they did, laughing and joking between overs then smashing the Australian attack all round the ground.

Dilley recalled the day earlier this year in an interview with the Birmingham Post marking the 30th anniversary of the match. "The game was over and we'd lost, time to pack your bags and go home," he said. "Skipper Mike Brearley gave me no instructions so I asked Ian what we should do. The pitch was very difficult and he said that we wouldn't survive long just blocking, so we might as well have a swing if the ball was in the right area."

England passed 227, meaning that Australia would have to bat again, and then began to build a lead. Dilley was bowled by Terry Alderman for 56, but the damage was done, paving the way for Botham and Bob Willis to wreak havoc among the Aussie batsmen and forge an outrageous victory. Dilley – whose nickname was Picca – took a crucial catch on the boundary to dismiss the Australian wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, giving Willis the fifth of the eight wickets that sealed victory.

"I can't remember much about the ball coming towards me, but I remember taking the catch and then checking how close I was to the rope," he said. "Some players ran towards Bob but then some of the slips came over to me. Botham arrives and the first thing he tells me is that, as it was in the air, Brearley, seeing that I was under it, exclaimed, 'Oh God, it's Picca'."

It was the first time since 1894–95 that a team following on had won a Test. Under Brearley's leadership, England went on to win the next two matches before a drawn final match at The Oval, but Dilley did not figure, replaced by John Emburey, Paul Allott and Mike Hendrick.

Botham, who joined Worcestershire at the same time as Dilley in the county's most successful period, said of his former team-mate, "I've got so many fond memories of him. He ran in to bowl in the Caribbean, first ball, and the heel fell off his boot. Typical Graham, he's only brought one pair with him on an England tour so there was panic there, but he was a fantastic cricketer who had a lot of talent. He was plagued with injuries, his neck and knees, which probably stopped him playing a lot more for England, but on his day he was the best."

Born in Dartford in 1959, Dilley made his first-class debut for Kent against Cambridge University aged only 18. He didn't take a wicket, however, and had to wait until the next season for another chance. His next game, in June 1978, was against the touring Pakistanis, but again he finished wicketless; finally, against Middlesex, he grabbed seven wickets as Kent romped to a six-wicket victory.

He was quickly developing into a potent fast bowler and after that his rise was rapid: in November 1979 he made his one-day international debut for England, against West Indies in Sydney during the World Series Cup. Given the new ball, Dilley made his mark in his third over when he claimed the wicket of Desmond Haynes. The match was won by England by two runs when West Indies were given a rain-revised target.

The following month Dilley's Test debut, against Australia, followed – making him the youngest English Test player for 30 years. He took three wickets in his first match, which is, perhaps, best remembered for part of the second-innings scorecard which read: "Lillee – c. Willey, b. Dilley 19". On the tour as a whole he was less successful, taking only seven wickets in total.

In 1980, he was overlooked for the first two Tests against West Indies but made the cut for for the third Test, at Old Trafford. Thanks to the rain that Test was drawn, as were the fourth and fifth, but Dilley's 11 wickets in three innings ensured his presence on the winter tour of the Caribbean. England lost that four-Test series against West Indies 2-0 but Dilley's 10-wicket haul kept him in the side for 1981.

Following his Headingley exploits, Dilley had a chequered few years. He played a full part in England's World Cup campaign in 1983, but after the tournament a neck injury forced him out of the game for a year. He returned to county cricket in 1985 with doubts about his long-term prospects. He played well during a winter stint for Natal in South Africa and his rehabilitation seemed complete: in 1986 he took 63 first-class wickets and earned an England recall.

Between 1986 and 1988, Dilley took 83 Test wickets at an average of 26.43, and was regarded by many as England's best strike bowler. In 1986-87 he took 5 for 68 in the first innings of the first Test at Brisbane to help his team to a victory that set them on their way to another Ashes triumph.

In the drawn series against New Zealand the following winter he produced the best bowling figures of his career, tearing through the Kiwi attack with 6 for 38 (including the first five wickets) at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. He finished the series with 15 wickets at an average of 14.

In 1987 he had signed for Worcestershire, along with Botham, helping them win four trophies in three years – including successive County Championships in 1987 and 1988 – the most successful period in their history.

"I had a lot of great times with him," Botham said. "He had a great sense of humour, he always wanted to be part of the party and join in. He was a good bloke to be around. He was quite quiet and reserved until you got to know him, but then he was the life and soul of the party."

In 1988 he played his last one-day international, against West Indies at Headingley, of all places, and in 1989 his last Test match was against Australia at Edgbaston, ending his career with 138 wickets at an average of 29.78. He then joined Mike Gatting's rebel tour of South Africa that winter, which was badly timed, coinciding as it did with the "unbanning" of the African National Congress and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Most of the squad never played for England again, though Gatting himself was to return after serving a three-year ban.

Dilley retired from all forms of cricket in 1992. In retirement he found himself strapped for cash – his move from Kent to Worcestershire, coming in the middle of his career, deprived him of the benefit which many cricketers rely on to ease the transition. His coaching career began at Cheltenham College, and he was later coach to the England women's team. In 2001 he went with England on their tour to India.

More recently Dilley had been a Loughborough MCC Universities coach, helping the likes of Monty Panesar to emerge as international cricketers. The MCC's Head of Cricket John Stephenson, the former Essex and Hampshire batsman who got to know Dilley well in their playing days, was appreciative of Dilley's work as a coach, saying, "He made a huge impact; he was central to the progress made at Loughborough over the last decade."

Chris Pennell, who plays rugby union at full-back for the Premiership side Worcester, is Dilley's son.

Chris Maume

Graham Roy Dilley, cricketer and coach: born Dartford, Kent 18 May 1959; married twice (four children); died Leicester 5 October 2011.

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