The most resonant bowling figures in the history of English Test cricket, says Bob Willis in his deliberate, lugubrious way, are Jim Laker's 19 for 90, against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956. "And not particularly remembered are Devon Malcolm's nine wickets against South Africa at the Oval [9 for 57 in 1994]. But yes, in the context of memorable England bowling performances, after Laker at Old Trafford and probably because it was against the Australians again, mine might be up at number two."
The performance to which he refers, of course, is his devastating 8 for 43, one of the great displays of hostile fast bowling, which 30 years ago this week secured the most improbable of victories for an England team that after three days of the third Test at Headingley had been not just against the ropes, but slumped on the canvas.
In the summer of 1981, with the nation racked by industrial unrest and inner-city riots, it seemed entirely if dispiritingly consistent that the England cricket team should also be mired in haplessness. After leading the team to defeat at Trent Bridge, and then bagging a highly publicised pair in a draw at Lord's, Ian Botham resigned the captaincy of which he was about to be relieved anyway. Mike Brearley was then persuaded out of Test cricket retirement to skipper the team at Headingley, but at the end of that third day, with England already a wicket down following on, Willis can hardly have expected, to put it mildly, to be dining out three decades later on the story of the match and the rest of the series.
At a pub near his home in south-west London, however, that is precisely what he is doing, starting one of the great yarns of English sport with Botham's ill-starred appointment as captain. "Brian Close, one of the selectors, had thought it would be a jolly good idea if the young Botham took up the reins, but five Tests against the West Indies was a very tough baptism, and Beefy found it hard going. He has a tremendous cricket brain, but a little bit like Gower he was always a pretty reluctant practiser, and as captain he had to organise the nets, which didn't sit too comfortably with him. Once he crossed the boundary rope he was a great competitor, but the rest was a needless distraction. When he was having his net, Beefy just used to try to hit the press corps, to entertain himself."
With England one down and being comprehensively outplayed in the Ashes, the ducking-and-dodging press corps wrought sweet revenge by questioning Botham's captaincy credentials. "And his form with bat and ball had certainly suffered," says Willis. "The decision to step down was the right one, although [chairman of selectors] Alec Bedser had no need to say publicly that he would have been sacked anyway." Bedser was the embodiment of old-school attitudes. "I remember at Lord's when Bob Woolmer started using a hairdryer, Alec said, 'Have we run out of bloody towels, then?'" recalls Willis, with a chuckle.
And so, hairdryers and all, to Leeds, where for three days the change at the helm seemed to have made no difference. "Aussie batted pretty well, then Alderman, Lillee and Lawson bowled us out one and a half times." On the Sunday, a rest day, Botham hosted a barbecue for both teams at his home on Humberside. "It was a convivial evening," Willis remembers, "but most of us hangdog old soaks in the England side – Peter Willey, Chris Old, myself – felt sure that we wouldn't pull on an England sweater again."
On the fourth day, Botham led a spirited show of resistance, but still defeat seemed inevitable. "Beefy just went in to have a slog in the second innings, but things went his way. And Kim Hughes' captaincy, which didn't have the stamp of approval from the Packer boys, Marsh and Lillee, was a bit naïve. If he'd put Ray Bright on early in the piece, Beefy would probably have smashed a couple of sixes then hit one up in the air. As it was, the luck was with him, and he got tremendous support from Dilley and Old down the order." Not to mention R G D Willis. "Yes, I made a magnificent two, but we put on 37 or something for the last wicket, which in the whole scheme of things proved quite significant."
As Henry Blofeld recalled in these pages on Saturday, on the fifth day Willis was out even before the first piece of chocolate cake had been cut by the Test Match Special team. England had made 356, with Botham 149 not out, but Australia needed only 130 to take an unassailable lead in the series. At 56 for 1, they surely had the match won. But then came the Willis whirlwind. "After I picked up three quick wickets we could feel the pressure shifting from us to them. And of course, there is no greater motivation than seeing your international career hanging by a thread. Of course, players then didn't have the loyalty shown to them that modern players have. Pietersen and Strauss would have been dropped by now. Even when we were winning, the selectors were changing the side. There were 20 players used in that series."
Brearley commanded the admiration of all of them. "The Australian bowler Rodney Hogg was right to describe him as having a degree in people. Everyone had the utmost respect for Mike apart, probably, from Phil Edmonds. Those two old Cantabs really got under one another's skin. But we all liked Mike's style of captaincy. Of course, he had a pretty potent bowling machine, which always helps. When you've got Willis and Botham as opening bowlers, with the likes of Old, Dilley, Hendrick and Allott in and around the side... well, I think back to 10 years ago when Mark Ilott and James Kirtley were opening the bowling for England." Even when he's wielding a soup spoon, Willis doesn't pull his punches. Without the soup spoon, that's what makes him such a fine, uncompromising television analyst.
"Mike's captaincy record looks fantastic, which it was," he continues, "but how many series did he captain against the West Indies? Zero. So he was in the right place at the right time. Of course, he was always going to go on to more important things than cricket, with his psychotherapy."
Yet in a way, I venture, Brearley made cricket an exercise in psychoanalysis. "Yeah, and the people picking the team with him weren't as bright as him, so he could bamboozle them with his arguments, though still the team chopped and changed. With me, he knew I needed to get into a cocoon of concentration and not be distracted by the minutiae of field settings. If he wanted to tinker with the field I was perfectly happy. He was certainly never formulaic, which captaincy can be. It staggers me now that there is never a third man in position. Between 45 to 48 per cent of runs in Test cricket are scored through third man, yet it is seen as a defensive tactic."
Thinking anything but defensively, and instructed by Brearley not to worry about no-balls, Willis continued to roar through the Australian batting line-up. Yet for all the excitement when he yorked Bright to clinch his 8 for 43, making England only the second Test side in history to win after following on, it was not until he was driving home to Birmingham that he fully understood how momentous the victory had been. "It was the lead story on the PM programme, and that was when it struck me," he recalls. "After the match the BBC wanted to interview Brearley, Botham, Willis and Hughes, then we went to a press conference, and when we got back to the dressing room there was hardly anyone there. They were playing in the Gillette Cup the next day all round the country, so there was no celebration of the win at all, just a pint of bitter each for me and Beefy, and he had a cigar. And although I've since met 250,000 people who were all at Headingley that day, there actually weren't that many people at the ground. It was only later I found out that the stock market had stopped trading, that people were standing in the streets outside television shops. But the team was changed for the next Test, so there was never any chance for those 11 guys to celebrate."
These days, of course, the remarkable 3-1 win would have been followed by open-top bus parades and an orderly queue for MBEs. On the other hand, there would also have been enquiries and suspensions following the news that Lillee and Marsh had taken advantage of the 500-1 odds against an England win.
"Yes, Australians can't resist a bet, you know. They bet on everything. Have you ever been in a casino in Australia, and watched them playing Two-Up? It's a mind-numbing gambling game like heads and tails, in fact Tommo's [Jeff Thomson's] nickname early in his career was Two-Up. So when dear old Godfrey Evans, who was doing the PR for Ladbrokes at the time, persuaded them to put up those odds, Marsh and Lillee thought '500-1, in a two-horse race?' Back then it was just two larrikins having a punt."
Willis himself is not inclined to take a punt on the forthcoming Test series against India, while noting that the opposition is "seriously good".
"We used to quake in our boots when the West Indies batting order was read out. Greenidge, Haynes, Gomes, Richards, Richardson, Lloyd, Dujon, and then the nuclear warhead after that. Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kohli, Dhoni has a similar ring to it. But I think England have a better bowling attack. Bounce and swing will unsettle the Indian batsmen because they're not used to that at home."
The England attack is not quite a nuclear warhead, but the old paceman likes what he sees. "Tremlett has hardly put a foot wrong since he had his opportunity again. He had a bit of a reputation at Hampshire of ducking out of the fray, but the move to Surrey has reinvigorated him. Anderson has a very good Test match record and relishes leading the attack. Swann is the leading spin bowler in the world. But there's a question mark over the other seam-bowling spot. I'm a big fan of selectorial consistency, but I wouldn't pick Broad. I think Bresnan, Finn and probably Onions are all bowling better, and while I don't like judging players by statistics, Broad's Test-match wickets have cost over 35 apiece. That's too expensive."
Willis is entitled to criticise. His own Test match bowling average was a highly creditable 25.20, aided, of course, by the second-most famous figures in the history of English cricket.
Bob Willis is an analyst for Sky Sports, whose live and exclusive coverage of England versus India begins on Thursday.
Test match bowling record
Debut v Aus, Sydney, 1971
Last Test v WI, Leeds, 1984
Economy rate 2.83
Strike rate 53.4
Five wickets in an innings 16
10 wickets in the match 0
Best innings v Aus, Leeds 1981 8-43
Best match v NZ, Leeds 1983 9-92Reuse content