Great Sporting Moments: England beat Australia by 18 runs, Third Ashes Test, Headingley, 16-21 July, 1981

It was a turnaround so implausible it still beggars belief: a spectacular resurrection in one man's career, in the fortunes of a team, and in the morale of a nation. Angus Fraser looks back on that enchanted summer when all England seemed to stand still while a cricketing miracle unfolded

Most serious sportsmen can remember a moment or match or performance during their formative years that enthralled them and inspired them to try to emulate the feats of those they were watching from afar.

For a football-loving teenager, it may have been the silky skills of Maradona taking Argentina to victory at the 1986 World Cup; for an adolescent rugby player, the sight of Jonny Wilkinson winning the World Cup for England in 2003 with a drop goal. For me that gem, that moment of total captivation, came in 1981, among the red-brick chimneyed houses of Headingley, a northern suburb of Leeds.

I was 15 at the time and had just finished my O-levels. I loved cricket, playing it (as my grades later showed) whenever I could. But it was not the prospect of failing to gain entrance to Oxford or Cambridge University that galvanised my thoughts as I sat glued to the television in the back room of our family home in mid-July – it was the realisation that I too wanted to be an England cricketer. I wanted to be Ian Botham.

I wanted – like Botham – to slay the Australians, to produce the unimaginable when it was least expected and most needed, and to become a national hero. I am sure I was not alone. Botham's herculean efforts that summer must have inspired a whole generation of young men to go out and play the greatest game in the world.

It is hard to think oneself back into a world in which those efforts had not yet taken place, yet it is instructive to do so. To say that the UK in 1981 was politically, socially and economically in a similar situation to the one in which it finds itself today would probably be stretching it a bit, but only by degree.

The economy was in recession, unemployment was rising, and the threat of terrorism was high. Bobby Sands, the gaoled IRA member who had begun a hunger strike just prior to the cricket season, had died weeks before the Ashes began. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, had just been found guilty. Margaret Thatcher's policies were causing unrest in the inner cities, with riots taking place in Brixton and Toxteth. There was even a riot in Chapeltown, Leeds – just a week before the Ashes series came to Headingley. Living in Britain in those days was not, on the whole, an especially pleasurable experience.

Nor was that all. English cricket was in a pretty dire state, too. With Botham as captain, the England team had lost heavily in successive series to the West Indies. It had also been defeated by Australia in the opening Ashes Test of 1981, at Trent Bridge. There was an air of negativity about English cricket that echoed the state of national morale generally. Then, at end of the drawn second Test, at Lord's, things got worse. Botham, who had bagged a pair in the match, resigned as captain. Now it was official: English cricket was in crisis.

His decision did not come as a total surprise. England had lost eight and failed to win any of the 12 matches he captained, and it was clear that the responsibility of leading the team had had a detrimental effect on the all-rounder's form. When Botham took charge, he was arguably the greatest cricketer on the planet. His daring, carefree, no-nonsense style of play had lit up the world of cricket. It seemed that nothing was beyond him.

It wasn't just the runs he scored and the wickets he took: Botham represented a new breed of cricketer, the kind who was unafraid to take on the establishment. He played the game the way he wanted to play it, not how the MCC coaching manual instructed. He played with passion and aggression, and in 25 Tests he had taken 139 wickets at an average of 18.53 and scored 1,336 runs at 40.48. In the Test before he took over as captain, against India in Mumbai, he became the first player ever to take 10 wickets and score 100 in the same Test.

Then came the captaincy. Making a team's best player its captain is rarely a good idea, as the recent choices of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen have highlighted. (Sadly, selectors never seem to learn.) Botham had a shocker while captaining his country, averaging 13 with the bat and 33 with the ball – form that would have led to a lesser cricketer losing not only the captaincy but also his place in the side.

Perhaps it was little wonder that he struggled. Leaders have to lead, but the best also understand the emotional fragility of other members of the team. But Botham, a naturally gifted and instinctive sportsman, was just 24 when he took charge, and fear of failure had rarely, if ever, entered his head. Instead, when he played a bad shot or had a bad day, there was always a reason. An example of this came in the 1989 Ashes, when he entered the dressing room after being stumped off the bowling of Trevor Hohns. Botham insisted that his dismissal was due to his bat getting caught up in his pad, but as he was making his excuse a television replay revealed that his bat was at no stage close to his pad. Unsurprisingly, nobody chose to challenge him on his assessment.

Meanwhile, in 1981, English cricket was falling into the abyss. To save it, the selectors turned to Mike Brearley, an impressive and articulate man who had successfully captained England in the past and already had the reputation of being an outstanding leader. Brearley was an excellent tactician and man-manager, and had captained Botham when he was at his best. The plan was for him to bring stability to a volatile situation. It was hoped that his presence would also help rejuvenate England's star player.

Botham is a hugely patriotic and proud man but he can be hard to manage. Winning his respect, as many people have found out, is challenging, and when he does not have a great deal of time for an individual their life in the dressing-room can be difficult. Nor is Botham a huge fan of authority and "poncy" people with University degrees – so it surprised everyone that Brearley, a former Oxbridge student with a modest batting record, won him over.

The respect that Botham has for Brearley, even 28 years after the event, is joyful to see. Botham's outspoken and boisterous nature means that he dominates most of the conversations he is involved in; usually, even if he is wrong, he has the final say. Yet when the pair are together Botham's demeanour changes. He listens attentively to what Brearley has to say and would never dream of interrupting him mid-sentence.

It is reported that Brearley's first words after accepting the invitation to captain England again were: "I want Botham in my team." Knowing what followed, as we do now, the statement seems obvious. It wasn't at the time. Botham's mental state and his place in the team were being questioned. Indeed, Ray Illingworth, a former England captain, told the world in his newspaper column that Botham was: "overrated, overweight and overpaid. He should be dropped from the team."

One of the first calls Brearley made was to Botham, to see how he was and to ask him if he wanted to play at Headingley. "Of course I bloody want to play Brears," was the frank and predictable reply. "I have a good feeling about this Test, we can beat this shower."

"That's great," said Brearley, "I think you'll get 150 runs and take 10 wickets."

The faith shown by Brearley in Botham during the first difficult spell he had encountered in his England career is one of the main reasons why Botham holds Brearley in such high regard. Making Brearley captain, even though he was not worth his place in the team as a batsman, was a master stroke.

***

The third test began under a familiar slate-grey Leeds sky, with England making two changes to the side that drew at Lord's. Bob Woolmer made way for Brearley, and the traditionally seamer-friendly Headingley surface encouraged the selectors to pick Chris Old on his home ground ahead of spinner John Emburey.

Little on the opening three days gave even the slightest indication of the outrageous drama that was to unfold. Despite the overhead conditions and a grassy pitch, Australia chose to bat on winning the toss. Headingley is not a venue one would associate with groundbreaking technology, but it provided English cricket with its first electronic scoreboard, which showed Australia had reached 203-3 by the close of a rain-affected and mundane first day. Opener John Dyson posted a maiden Test hundred. The right hander was dropped by Botham in the gully on 57, one of three chances grassed as Australia took control. Brearley may have been back and Botham's shackles released, but it seemed to be making little difference.

Kim Hughes and Graham Yallop extended Australia's advantage, and the tourists were on 332-4 when Botham dismissed Hughes, the Australian captain, caught and bowled for 89. With the responsibility of captaincy taken away and the rediscovered ability to play with freedom, Botham began to give the first indication that he was on the mend, taking five Australian wickets for 48 runs in a 22-over-and-two-ball spell broken only by the tea interval. Botham finished with the admirable figures of 6-95 as Hughes's side were finally dismissed for 401.

Learning from the mistakes made by England's seamers, Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson bowled straighter and to a fuller length on the third day: tactics that resulted in the triumvirate making the most of a helpful pitch. With the exception of Botham, who scored 50, England's batsmen failed to cope, and the hosts were dismissed for 174.

Following on, Graham Gooch was caught at slip off Lillee before the close to leave England requiring a further 221 to make Australia bat again. England's inept display, and the umpires' decision to abandon play for the day earlier than they should have done, produced an angry response from spectators, who hurled cushions at the match officials as they left the field.

The reaction of a crowd today in similar circumstances would probably be much the same, but cricket was a different game in 1981, and the unrest added to a sense that things really were dire. Test cricket, though generally slow, was the game's star attraction, and money was not yet the driving force behind every decision that was made. True, Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket had stirred the game up a bit in the late Seventies, gaining players a substantial pay rise; but, even so, the likes of Botham were still earning less than £1,000 per Test. There was also the much-loved tradition, in England, of a rest day on a Sunday. What fun those were –right in the middle of a Test, with a local player often hosting a barbecue for the rest of the players. Although he played for Somerset Botham's family home was in Yorkshire and both teams were invited to his house on the Saturday night. Australian spirits, unsurprisingly, were higher than England's.

***

Then came Monday. Brearley's side arrived at Headingley for the fourth day with several of the team, including Botham, having checked out of their hotel. At first, the day unfolded exactly as the pessimists had feared. Brearley, Gower, Gatting and Willey all fell cheaply, and England were 105 for 5 when Botham walked out to bat after lunch.

He began cautiously. Then, shortly after his arrival, Geoff Boycott was trapped lbw by Alderman to reduce the hosts to 133-6 – at which point Ladbrokes, in an attempt to drum up some business, flashed up odds of 500-1 against an England victory on the electronic scoreboard.

Business came Ladbrokes' way from an unlikely source. Were Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh to act now as they did then, having a sly bet on England to win the match, each would have received a life ban. In the light of Hansie Cronje's revelations about match-fixing, it seems naïve to believe that a player would never think of deliberately losing a game he was playing in for financial gain. But such thoughts had not entered most players' consciousness back then. Lillee and Marsh both enjoyed a punt and could not believe such odds were being offered in a two-horse race, so they placed a few pounds each on England. Neither could ever be accused of ever giving anything other than their all for Australia's cause.

Ladbrokes odds seemed generous when, a few balls later, Bob Taylor was dismissed by Alderman for one and England were reduced to 135-7, still 92 runs shy of making Australia bat again. It was then that Graham Dilley joined Botham – who by this stage was on 15 – at the crease. Like Botham, Dilley is a man who enjoys a fag and a pint at a hotel bar, and the pair enjoyed each other's company. I became aware of this on my Test debut in 1989, when I walked in to the bar at The Plough and Harrow Hotel in Birmingham at around 10pm. I found the pair deep in conversation and joined them for a chat, but after one drink they suggested I went to bed. "Why?" I asked. "Because you might be bowling our overs tomorrow, but we certainly aren't bowling yours," was the reply. I took their advice and departed.

When the pair met on 20 July the conversation was not deep and meaningful. It is reported that Botham said: "Right then, let's have a bit of fun," when Dilley joined him at the crease. And what fun they had, smashing Australia's bowlers all around the famous old ground. Botham drove, hooked, pulled and cut with ferocity. When Lillee, Alderman or Lawson gave him any width he flashed hard, with several boundaries flying over the slip cordon. Nothing demoralises a fielding side more than conceding runs in such a manner.

Botham accepts that his innings was not aesthetically pleasing, but desperate times sometimes call for desperate actions. No bowler escaped the 25-year-old's pyrotechnics, as he amassed 110 of his 149 runs in boundaries. In all he plundered 27 fours – and one huge six. In no time the 92-run deficit disappeared, and slowly the mood of the two teams changed. Botham and Dilley were having the time of their lives, smiling and laughing between overs. Hughes and his team were not seeing the funny side.

England passed 227; meaning that Australia would have to bat again, and Botham looked towards the England balcony for directions. But rather than signal restraint Brearley encouraged the pair to become even more outrageous. Richie Benaud, the former Australian all-rounder and legendary commentator, described many outstanding moments in cricket, but his commentary to the six Botham hit off Alderman will always live in the memory. "No need to look for that one," said Benaud as the ball went sailing over the boundary; "it's gone straight into the confectionary stall ... and out again." Brilliant stuff.

With England's lead growing, Botham and Dilley started to get a little more serious and self aware, thinking the unthinkable. It was a mistake, and Dilley was bowled by Alderman for 56. Chris Old joined Botham, with the simple game plan of holding up an end while Botham kept carving. Old gave Botham excellent support and the pair put on 67.

During the partnership Botham posted a seventh Test 100, off the 87th ball he faced. His second 50 runs had come off just 30 deliveries, a run-rate a batsman in Twenty20 cricket would be happy with.

England's confidence continued to grow, and spectators began entering the ground, cheering every run scored. Realising they now had a game on their hands the Aussies went quiet. Botham has always loved goading Australians and he did not miss the moment. "What's up boys?" he said. "Are you not enjoying it as much as me?"

Old went for 29, bowled by an enraged Lawson, who had earlier sent down two beamers at Botham. The unlikely figure of Bob Willis then gave Botham dogged support as a further 31 runs were added before the close of an astonishing day of cricket. What a transformation it had been: not only had England, with a lead of 124, given themselves an outside chance of victory – they also had to check back into their hotel again.

As Botham sat down in his corner of the dressing room to contemplate what had just taken place, an iconic picture of him was taken of him sitting with his long sleeved England sweater on lighting up a cigar. It was with a fish and chip supper and a couple of pints, not champagne, that Botham celebrated his highest Test score. He knew that if he and Willis could eke out another 20 or 30 runs the following morning anything could happen.

***

They didn't. Only five runs were added before Willis was dismissed by Alderman, who finished with the respectable figures of 6-135. Australia were left requiring 130 for victory, the kind of total that can be more awkward to get than it seems. The dilemma for a team is how to chase down such a score. Do you try to score the runs responsibly, giving few chances to the opposition, or do you go hard at them to get there as quickly as you can? In modern cricket the second alternative is generally preferred but in 1981, the approach was far more conservative.

England, meanwhile, had nothing to lose, and it showed. Willis's brief spell at the crease on the final day had done little to change the course of the match, but with the ball in his hand he produced one of the greatest spells of fast bowling in the history of Test cricket. As he tore in from the Kirkstall Lane End it was hard to believe his place in the team had been in doubt prior to the match.

Yet it had. In the previous Test, Willis had a chest infection, an ailment that forced him to miss the subsequent county match for Warwickshire. Initially the selectors read Willis's absence to be a sign he was not fit and began the process of bringing Mike Hendrick in to the side. A phone call between Alec Bedser, the then chairman of selectors, and Willis ended the confusion, with Hendrick's written invitation being intercepted by someone in the Derbyshire CCC office before it reached the player.

Now Willis repaid the selectors' faith. Australia, on 56-1, had been beginning to look as though they were coasting to their victory target of 130 when Brearley decided to bowl Willis from the Kirkstall Lane End. Willis proceeded to rip through Australia's middle order, reducing the tourists to 75-8 with an inspired piece of bowling. Willis regularly bowled for England as though his life depended on it and the transfixed stare he held on taking each of his eight wickets gave the impression that he was on a different planet.

Lillee and Ray Bright then added 35 runs in four overs to take Australia to within a couple of lusty blows of their target, but Willis ended their fun when Lillee chipped the ball to Mike Gatting, who held an excellent tumbling catch at mid-on. The most amazing turnaround in Test history was completed when Willis bowled Bright. With an exultant crowd streaming on to the ground, a trance-like Willis bolted towards the pavilion, fighting his way through delirious Union Jack waving England supporters.

For England the celebrations had to wait, because nobody had expected such a reversal and all the champagne had been deposited in the Australian dressing-room. At first the Aussies did not want to play ball but after a few minutes of negotiations a dozen bottles exchanged hands.

We are still enjoying the moment 28 years later. The great thing for English cricket was that it was not only spotty teenagers who became smitten by the actions of the finest all-rounder England has produced. At a difficult time and with Test attendances in decline, Botham single-handedly reinvigorated the ultimate form of the game. His brilliance highlighted why Test cricket is and remains the pinnacle of the game. From Headingley onwards, crowds at Tests in England rose and the unimaginable has never since felt impossible. Having been shown by Botham that a match can be won from such a precarious situation, hundreds of subsequent teams have refused to give up hope. Hundreds of captains will have motivated their flagging sides by saying: "Remember Headingley 1981." That one performance has stirred more comebacks than any other in the game.

In fact, Botham's heroics continued in the next two Tests at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, taking England to an unassailable 3-0 Ashes lead. In a matter of weeks Botham had done more to put the feel-good factor back into British life than any politician could have dared to hope for. It was true that, while he did so, never before had so few shares been traded on the stock exchange or so many people phoned in sick. Yet the long-term effect on national morale was rejuvenating.

Is it taking wishful thinking too far to imagine that a similar series of events over the coming weeks might have a comparable influence on a country that is currently feeling a little sorry for itself?

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