Graham Dilley: Blond bombshell who had a glorious day in the sun

A ferocious bowler and inspirational coach whose Headingley heroics will always live in the memory

Graham Dilley was a blond bombshell of a fast bowler. He burst on to the scene with a chest-on action, piercing blue eyes and plenty of attitude. Eventually, if briefly, he lived up to the early billing. He was fast, ferocious, menacing and taking wickets.

After retirement, somewhat at odds with the boy of his earlier playing days, he became a thoughtful, inspirational, if occasionally insular coach. Dilley invigorated several generations of talented student cricketers and, had he been given the opportunity, he would have prospered at a higher level.

But his career and much of his life were somehow enshrined in a single summer afternoon. When Dilley died yesterday at the age of 52, the tributes to his achievements paid due regard to his status as one of the quickest of all England's bowlers and to his role as a quietly successful coach at Loughborough University.

The centrepiece, however, was what happened on 20 July, 1981, at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds. Dilley it was that day who launched the counter-attack against Australia which allowed England to go on to win the Test match and a month later the Ashes.

His utterly improbable partnership with Ian Botham started with England at 135 for 7 in their second innings, still 92 runs behind after following on. They shared an eighth-wicket stand of 117, matching flashing blade with flashing blade.

Dilley began the romp, recognising that England had nothing to lose. His early, optimistic swishes missed but soon he was making contact with some serious off-drives and vicious pulls. In recalling his innings of 56 when the match's 30th anniversary came round last July, Dilley said: "It wasn't particularly premeditated but if it was on the stumps I blocked it and if it wasn't I tried to thump it."

Botham soon joined in and went on to make 149 not out, which gave England a crucial lead of 130. From there, Australia imploded. England won by 18 runs. For once the papers could say it was the greatest match ever played and be telling the truth.

What few knew was that Dilley was suffering a crisis of form and of confidence as fast bowler. He did not play for the rest of the series and finished the season consigned to Kent second XI.

It took time for Dilley to work his way back and he needed first to overcome a severe neck injury, which required delicate surgery. But his cussed nature ensured that he made it all right. Dilley was stubborn and principled. He left Kent – the county of his birth – for Worcestershire because he did not like the way that things were going.

By the time of Mike Gatting's Ashes tour of 1986-87, he was almost fully restored and his 5 for 68 in the first Test of that series in Brisbane put Australia on the back foot. Dilley finished with 138 Test wickets at 29.76 each, taking them more cheaply as time went on, but then, fast bowler's body all but spent, he went on a rebel tour of South Africa purely for the cash.

He first came to prominence in the summer of 1979 when he was 20 and as quick as a bushfire and anything seemed possible. He remains the seventh youngest to have played for England. There was then and there remained a brooding side to his character which never quite disappeared. He found some fulfilment in coaching the student cricketers of Loughborough and coaching them to win too.

But somehow Headingley '81 hung about him. "I don't spend too much time thinking about it," he said last July. "I am happy there are games that England have played that people think are better than that one." Not many, not ever.

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