Cricket: The day Botham brought the house down

Tomorrow's Ashes Test at Headingley could be the last there between the old foes. Adam Szreter looks back at the match that was England's finest hour
Click to follow
When Mike Atherton and Mark Taylor walk out for the toss before the start of the fourth Test tomorrow morning, it is conceivable they will be the last Ashes captains ever to do so at Headingley. If Yorkshire County Cricket Club get their way, they will have moved to a new home near Wakefield by the time of the next Australian visit in four years, and Headingley will be left behind in the 20th century.

The ground made its debut as a Test venue on 29 June 1899. The game, played over three days, was drawn with one account noting: "The match proved a huge attraction, and before lunch there were nearly 20,000 people on the ground. There were over 100 police present and though they had no great disorder to deal with, several thousand people forced their way right up to the boundary after lunch, obstructing the view of those who occupied the proper seats, and for the rest of the day the cricket went on to a ceaseless accompaniment of shouting and cries of `Sit down!'."

Over the years, and particularly in recent times, the Headingley crowd has rarely failed to attract attention, occasionally "enjoying themselves" a little too much for some people's liking. But they have witnessed some great moments in Ashes history, none more so than in 1981.

Against a backdrop of sharply rising unemployment and street riots the very same month in Liverpool and Manchester, England arrived for the third Test on 16 July, 1-0 down in the series and in a mess. It did not seem likely that Ian Botham's finest hour was just around the corner.

"I'd just resigned from the captaincy after the Lord's Test," Botham said yesterday, reflecting on events that have been better chronicled than just about any English sporting triumph other than the 1966 World Cup.

"Mike Brearley was in charge and Brears came up to me at the start of the game and asked me if I wanted to play. He said `I understand the situation if you don't,' and I said `of course I want to play.' Then he said `good, because I think you'll get 200 runs and 10 wickets.' And he wasn't too far out."

With six wickets in the Australian first innings and a top score of 50 in England's first innings, Botham had already done more than his fair share. But the best was yet to come. Following on, England slumped to 135 for 7 when Graham Dilley joined Botham at the crease midway through the fourth day. Eighty minutes later, the famous odds of 500-1 against England becoming the first side this century to win a Test after following on had been drastically reduced.

"It was a dodgy wicket and I just decided I was going to go out there and enjoy it, have a bit of fun, swing from the hip if you like," Botham said. "The ball didn't always go where we intended it to - in fact it probably only went in the right direction about 50 per cent of the time, so technically it wasn't a great knock, but it certainly got everyone going.

"With Picca [Dilley] I kept saying to him, `just hit the ball, don't think about it. It's the kind of wicket that, if you try and play correctly on it you are just going to get out.' I said, `you've got a good eye, enjoy yourself,' so we were laughing and joking out there and basically just enjoying the atmosphere."

Dilley recalls the moment he went out to join Botham: "By that stage we were seven down and the game had virtually gone. People were packing their kit away and wanting to get on the motorway as quickly as they could. It was just really a bit of fun. I don't suppose, if the game had been tighter, we could have afforded to play the way that we did.

"There's one thing I noticed on the tape that I've got. I've had an enormous wind-up at Lillee, and missed it completely, and the camera just pans back around to Dennis as he's walking back and there's Ian standing there, with a great big grin on his face. That just sums up what we were doing for that hour and a bit that I was out there, just having a laugh really."

By the time Dilley was out for 56 they had added 117 thrilling runs; then Chris Old and Bob Willis helped Botham add another 104, Botham finishing unbeaten on 149. Even then Australia only had to score 130 to win, but Willis performed heroics with the ball, taking 8 for 43, and England scraped home by 18 runs.

"I have friends up in Scotland who contacted me afterwards and said, `You brought Glasgow to a standstill,' and I just laughed," Botham said. "But apparently it brought chaos, everyone watching in shop windows all over the country and all sorts.

"I think it was a little bit what the country needed and it's a little bit like we've seen in this series. The boys won the one-day series 3- 0 and they won the first Test, and suddenly everyone's got Ashes fever. I think we are actually in for a cracking series and I do believe that's what it's all about, getting the public on your side."

Botham of course went on to more Herculean feats at Edgbaston and Old Trafford in the following two Tests, lifting the whole country in a way that only sport can. Even the Royal Family got in on the act, Charles and Diana celebrating England's victory at Headingley by getting married a week later. But Dilley, out of form with the ball, did not play another Test in the series. "Two weeks after that game I was playing for Kent Second XI against the Army at Woolwich," he said. And the recession, sadly, had only just begun.