It was 30 years ago today: England surely must lose but Beefy and Bob prove that miracles do happen

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From the magic of Botham to Willis' heroics, five protagonists of the unforgettable third Test at Headingley recall day-by-day how home side conjured greatest comeback in cricket history against Australia

Thirty years ago today, the country was in turmoil: unemployment was approaching three million, inner-city streets were scarred by race riots. The disarray of the England cricket team matched the nation step for step. They were 1-0 down in the Ashes series, they had been beaten in the West Indies the previous winter and by the West Indies at home the previous summer.

Their erstwhile champion all-rounder, Ian Botham, had been seemingly neutered by the captaincy. Of his 12 matches in charge, England won none. At Lord's, in the second Test of the 1981 summer, matters reached a head. The match, mired in bad weather, was beset by controversy. MCC members jeered the umpires when they took the players off for bad light and, more effectively, greeted Botham with a stony silence as he returned to the dressing room after bagging a pair.

Before the selectors could fire him, Botham resigned. In desperation as much as hope, they asked Mike Brearley to come out of Test retirement to lead the team. There was nobody else.

For most of the first two days of the Headingley match which started on 16 July 1981 nothing much changed. Brearley's influence seemed negligible, Botham was still not firing, and England were losing. But the match was to take a dramatic turn which transformed the team and for a while at least made England as a whole feel good about itself again.

The Independent asked a host of those who witnessed it to retell their story.

Day One: The Australia Player, John Dyson, Opening Batsman

'It was the best I ever batted in a Test – we ended the day pretty pleased'

We were a confident side by the time we arrived at Headingley one-up in the series. We were playing well and had enjoyed the better of the first two Tests. Our thinking was that we just needed to keep doing what we had been doing at Trent Bridge, where we had won, and Lord's so we were not concerned with the changes England made to their XI. We sent out the same side that had drawn at Lord's, with Ray Bright keeping his place to give us a spin option.

It was a difficult start to the Test. I opened with Graeme Wood and it took about 15 minutes for us to realise that it was going to be an extremely difficult pitch to bat on. From the very start it was up and down, but somehow I survived through that first hour. Just staying in was the key to success on that wicket on day one – simply put, the longer you stayed out in the middle, the more you got used to it. Early on I played a French cut which could easily have gone into my stumps and I decided this could be my day.

I remember playing and missing a few times, but you have to keep going and keep your concentration levels high so that when the loose ones come along you can put them away. If I was beaten I just forgot about it and concentrated on the next ball. I passed 50 and then on 57 I slammed a square cut straight at Ian Botham in the gully. He couldn't cling on to it. It was a tough time for him – he had lost the captaincy and scored that pair at Lord's – but he was always competitive and no matter what situation he found himself in we were already well aware that he would always be up for a fight.

It was tough, really tough. But then that is what Test cricket's about. Back then most pitches did more than a bit. It was certainly not a batsman's game then. In the Eighties, day-one wickets always seemed as if they had something in them for the bowlers. Over the last decade pitches have become incredibly flat, great batting decks, so it has been good to see some more competition between bat and ball over the last couple of years – real competition is what real Test cricket is about. That's what day one was about at Headingley.

Given the conditions, we thought we did a pretty good job. Bob Willis, Graham Dilley and Chris Old didn't bowl too badly but we batted well. At times it was something of an impasse, with the ball doing too much – we couldn't hit, and they couldn't hit the stumps. If anything, the ball did too much. Willis bowled well, quick and aggressive with plenty of bounce.

It was the best I batted in Test cricket. I made two centuries in my 30 Tests; this was my first so it had special significance. I remember the shot very clearly: a short ball and I steered it to third man. What a great feeling, although there was a bit of relief in there too. How did I celebrate? We were more conservative in those days – Kim Hughes, our captain, was at the other end and he came down and shook my hand. Inside I was ecstatic.

There was disappointment, though, that I didn't survive the day – Dilley yorked me not long before the close. But to end the day three down left us pretty pleased. That evening we headed back to the hotel and everyone did their own thing. I had some dinner and remember just wanting to get to bed – it had been a tiring day. Tough but good.

John Dyson made 102 from 234 balls during 294 minutes at the crease. In all Dyson played 30 Tests for Australia before going on to coach Sri Lanka and West Indies. He is now manager of Sydney Thunder in Australia's Big Bash League, Cricket Australia's domestic Twenty20 competition.

Day One Scoreboard

Australia won the toss

Australia – First innings

J Dyson b Dilley: 102

GM Wood lbw b Botham: 34

TM Chappell c Taylor b Willey: 27

*KJ Hughes not out: 24

RJ Bright not out: 1

Total: 203-3

Fall: 1-55 (Wood), 2-149 (Chappell), 3-196 (Dyson).

England: GA Gooch, G Boycott, *JM Brearley, DI Gower, MW Gatting, P Willey, IT Botham, †RW Taylor, GR Dilley, CM Old, RGD Willis.

Day Two: The Umpire, Barrie Meyer

'Both bowled really well but Australia were still well on top'

Until it all kicked off on the fourth day, it had been a pretty miserable match for Barrie Meyer. The cricket was fairly pedestrian, the pitch was awful, the weather was not much better and the umpires were derided by the crowd.

The first two days consisted of Australia building up a total which was barely credible given the sporting conditions, and England helping them. "It was just another Test match at that point. England didn't bowl very well and John Dyson batted very well indeed," said Meyer.

"They consolidated their position on the second day but it wasn't what you'd call electrifying Test cricket. It wasn't until in the afternoon that it picked up."

It picked up almost entirely because of Ian Botham, making his first decisive intervention in the match. The returning captain, Mike Brearley, had allowed him no spell of longer than four overs until then, Australia were 309 for 4.

Botham was to bowl 16 overs at full pace with all the swagger of old. It was the first sign that he was truly back. He began by removing Kim Hughes on the verge of a century and soon had two more wickets. It was the first time he had taken five wickets in an innings since the Jubilee Test against India – the match before he had assumed the captaincy.

"The fact was that Botham bowled really well that night but Australia still had far more runs than they might have got in those gloomy Headingley conditions," said Meyer. "They were on top and that was that."

Barrie Meyer stood in 26 Test matches and two World Cup finals until retiring in 1993. Now 78, he lives in South Africa.

Day Two Scoreboard

Australia – First innings (cont)

*KJ Hughes c&b Botham: 89

RJ Bright b Dilley: 7

GN Yallop c Taylor b Botham: 89

AR Border lbw b Botham: 58

†RW Marsh b Botham: 28

GF Lawson c Taylor b Botham: 13

DK Lillee not out: 3

TM Aldermann not out: 0

Total: 401 for 9 dec

Fall: 4-220 (Bright), 5-332 (Hughes), 6-354 (Border), 7-357 (Yallop), 8-396 (Lawson), 9-401 (Marsh).

Bowling: RGD Willis 30-8-72-0, CM Old 43-14-91-0, GR Dilley 27-4-78-2, IT Botham 39.2-11-95-6, P Willey 13-2-31-1, G Boycott 3-2-2-0.

England – First innings

GA Gooch not out: 2

G Boycott not out: 0

Total: 7-0

Day Three: The Fan, Stan Dawson

'There was a feeling about Botham that he was not pulling his weight'

I went to most games at Headingley – I had been a member since I left the forces when I was 23 – and I was there for all five days in 1981. From the start it was what proper Test cricket was all about in those days: hard work. The end, of course, was a dream for the English and a nightmare for the poor old Australians but those first three days were hard work for us and day three was the worst of all. As we filed out of the ground come the end of play we all thought the end would come the following day and it would not be good for England.

In those days the Headingley pitch was always tough for batsmen, especially if there were clouds in the sky. In that era to score around 230 in the course of a day's play was standard going. It was what we were used to so that hadn't made the first couple of days difficult to sit through. I went with my wife, Kath, and a group of friends, and scored the game – I used to score every match I went to, but Headingley 1981 is the only one I have kept.

I used to take pictures too – on the first day I took one of Graeme Wood, the Australian opener. He had just been hit in the painful area and was having ice cubes tipped down his trousers. There was some look of relief of his face!

It was a real battle for the English batsmen on day three. Perhaps that Australia had got over 400, which was a good score on that pitch, played on their minds. Australia only needed to use three bowlers, Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson. Lillee bowled really quickly, although he didn't get his wickets until later in the innings. England lost Graham Gooch early on and just never got going until Ian Botham came in. I suppose the first innings was a bit like the second – just not as many fireworks! Botham hit a quick 50 – the highest score of the innings – but then he got out, caught behind by Rod Marsh off Lillee, I sat there thinking he should have gone on and played a really big innings.

There was a feeling Botham wasn't pulling his weight. Around where I was sitting there were some grumbles that he should be dropped – and, who knows, if he hadn't done what he did in the second innings he might have been.

There was no conviction about England's batting on that third day. After Gooch went they actually looked OK at 40 for 1 but once Mike Brearley fell to Alderman the wickets began to tumble. Down they went, apart from Botham. Looking down the card now, David Gower was the second highest scorer with 24 and I remember being disappointed in Chris Old.

We followed on and this time it took Lillee only three balls to make it two dismissals in a day for Gooch. We didn't expect the game to last much longer as we headed home, and we certainly did not expect anything other than an Australian victory.

Stan Dawson was 47 in 1981 and working for the Yorkshire Post. He is now retired, lives in Leeds and is still a member of Yorkshire CCC. He and his wife are regulars at Headingley.

Day Three Scoreboard

England – first innings innings (cont)

GA Gooch lbw b Alderman: 2

G Boycott b Lawson: 12

*JM Brearly c Marsh b Alderman: 10

DI Gower c Marsh b Lawson: 24

MW Gatting lbw b Lillee: 15

P Willey b Lawson: 8

IT Botham, c Marsh b Lillee: 50

†RW Taylor c Marsh b Lillee: 5

GR Dilley c&b Lillee: 13

CM Old c Border b Alderman: 0

RGD Willis not out: 1

Total: 174

Fall: 1-12 (Gooch), 2-40 (Brearly), 3-42 (Boycott), 4-84 (Gower), 5-87 (Gatting), 6-112 (Willey), 7-148 (Taylor), Botham 8-166, 9-167 (Old), 10-174 (Dilley).

Bowling: DK Lillee 18.5-7-49-4, TM Alderman 19-4-59-3, GF Lawson 13-3-32-3.

England - second innings (follow on)

G Boycott, c Alderman b Lillee0

*JM Brearley not out 4

Total 6-1

Day Four: The England Player, Graham Dilley, struggling bowler turned hitter

'If it was on the stumps, I blocked, and if it wasn't, I tried to thump it'

Two weeks after the greatest Test match of them all, Graham Dilley was turning out for Kent second XI at Woolwich. He could not, in the phrase, bowl a hoop downhill, and seriously thought he might never do so again.

His participation in the classic 1981 Test series ended at Headingley. The rest of the summer went by in a blur as he tried vainly to rediscover whatever it was that had made him an international fast bowler. "I shouldn't really have been playing in that match," he said. "I was frightened to let go of the ball because I had no idea where it might end up. I really didn't know what was going on and I didn't want to be there."

By the time Australia's second innings started he had reached his nadir. He bowled only two overs, for 11 runs, and was never recalled. By then, of course, he had made his imperishable contribution with the bat.

Easily overlooked though it is now, it was Dilley who began the counter-attack on the fourth afternoon. Having gone in at 137 for 7, with England still 90 behind, Dilley thought nothing about chancing his arm. "It wasn't particularly premeditated," he said. "But if it was on the stumps I blocked it and if it wasn't I tried to thump it."

His first few attempts met thin air but then he began to connect with some booming off-side drives. Of the first 27 he and Botham shared in their partnership of 117, Dilley made 22. The most enduring visual memory of Dilley that day is of his blond hair bursting from underneath a blue helmet that was squeezed on to his head. Soon he and Botham were laughing together at the ludicrousness of it all. Everything they hit pierced or missed the field.

Dilley batted for 80 minutes, faced 75 balls and hit nine fours in his 56. Chris Old, who followed him, made 29 from 28 balls, Botham finished on 149 not out from 148 balls, hitting 27 fours which became more outrageous as he went on.

At the start of Australia's second innings on the fifth day, Mike Brearley handed the new ball to Dilley, suspecting, or at least hoping, that his unexpected batting might regenerate his bowling. No such luck.

"The fact that I only bowled two overs tells its own story," said Dilley, who is now the successful coach of Loughborough University. "But then came Bob Willis. In all my time in sport, I don't think I have ever seen anybody in the trance-like state that Bob got into then."

Dilley took a smart catch at long leg just inside the ropes to dismiss Rodney Marsh. It went up so high that the England slips had time to discuss the probability of him dropping it. "The only thing I can remember in the dressing room afterwards is that there wasn't that much chat," Dilley recalled. "It was more: 'What has just happened there?' Someone suggested going and getting the champagne out of the Aussie changing room but I don't know if we did.

"My students say to me, 'Well, you must have had a big party afterwards'. But we couldn't. We were playing the next day. I had to get to Canterbury from Leeds that night."

It is true. Most of England's heroes, having levelled the Ashes series against Australia, played the following day for their counties in the NatWest Trophy second round. Dilley took 2 for 37 in Kent's four-wicket defeat to Nottinghamshire. Somerset, from whom Botham scored a rapid 45, also lost, as did Warwickshire, for whom Willis took 2 for 43.

"Yes, the 1981 Headingley Test was the greatest match I have played in," Dilley said, "but from a selfish point of view it was a little bit difficult to detach yourself from other things that were going on. This was probably my last game for a bit and something I desperately wanted to do was being taken away from me.

"I had a niggle in my shoulder and that was the reason given for me not playing in the next match. But the truth was I wasn't picked. It was a relief in a way. I don't think I could go through it anymore."

But on that magical fourth day, had he contemplated victory? "There was still no question of us winning the match. We knew that psychologically we were taking something into the next game [during our counter-attack]. But when our lead got past 100 the chances got better. We knew then if things went our way there was still a chance – but probably we needed to get early wickets."

Graham Dilley, who is now 52, played 41 Tests for England. He is now a coach at Loughborough University

Day Four Scoreboard

England – second innings (cont)

G Boycott lbw b Alderman: 6

*JM Brearly c Alderman b Lillee: 14

DI Gower c Border b Alderman: 90

MW Gatting lbw b Alderman: 1

P Willey c Dyson b Lillee: 33

IT Botham not out: 145

†RW Taylor c Bright b Alderman: 1

GR Dilley, b Alderman: 56

CM Old b Lawson: 29

RGD Willis not out: 1

Total: 351-9

Fall: 2-18 (Brearly), 3-37 (Gower), 4-41 (Gatting), 5-105 (Willey), 6-133 (Boycott), 7-135 (Taylor), 8-252 (Dilley), 9-319 (Old).

Day Five: The Commentator, Henry Blofeld, Test Match Special

'I don't think I have ever found it harder not to be biased on air'

It was probably wishful thinking. At breakfast on the Tuesday the feeling was that this extraordinary game might even have something more to offer. At 351 for 9, England were 124 runs ahead and yet...

In the Test Match Special box there was a happy mixture of gallows humour and extravagant optimism. Even the Australian commentator, Alan McGilvray – and Australia has never had a stauncher supporter – was prepared to concede that England had an outside chance. I don't think he meant it.

The first act of the day was something of an anticlimax when Bob Willis succumbed to Terry Alderman even before our first chocolate cake had been cut. Willis strode off in that uncompromising way of his, as if to keep an appointment with the executioner. Ian Botham, with 149 not out, was cheered to the echo and Australia had been left to score 130 to win. Brian Johnson was wonderfully hearty; the rest of us, McGillers apart, highly apprehensive.

Mike Brearley opened the bowling with Botham and Graham Dilley as a psychological ploy, in that he felt that since they had added a remarkable 117 the previous evening, they might continue to exert their spell. In this he was wrong for Dilley bowled two pretty ordinary overs from the Football Stand End. At the other end, though, Botham had Graeme Wood caught behind in his second over and we wondered if it was going to be Botham again.

Willis took over from Dilley and bowled five overs running up the hill and into the wind. When Brearley was later asked why he had done this to Willis, he replied with a whimsical smile that it was to make him angry. In this he was outrageously successful. Before this change, John Dyson and Trevor Chappell had taken Australia to 56 for 1 without any real difficulty. Australia now need only 74 to win and Willis then bowled Chappell a nasty lifter which he was unable to avoid and gave a simple lobbed catch to Bob Taylor. At 1.25pm Willis ran in to bowl what turned out to be the last over of the morning. Australia were 56 for 2.

At the end of it they were 58 for 4 and Fred Trueman was saying, "I don't know what's going OFF out there", in his own inimitable way. At the start of the over Kim Hughes could only edge a lifter and Botham held a wonderful catch diving to his left at second slip. This brought in Graeme Yallop who tried to get on top of the fifth ball of the over which also kicked, and Mike Gatting at short leg stood firm and diving forward managed to get both hands under the ball. At lunch, Alan McGilvray looked decidedly thoughtful while eating his pork pie.

For England, the fear was that Willis might have stiffened up over lunch, but this was not so. It was now time for Chris Old to lend a hand, though, and he knocked out Allan Border's leg stump with a beauty. At this point the commentary box shook. I don't think I have ever found it harder not to be biased on air.

Then came perhaps the most important wicket of all when Dyson was caught behind trying to hook Willis. Dyson is a great competitor, extremely adhesive with an excellent technique and a great temperament and might have seen it through. Peter Baxter, our producer, had great difficulty in stopping us all talking too loudly in the back of the box so that we were heard on air.

England's delight, on both sides of the boundary, knew no bounds. Now victory really was a distinct possibility. When, soon afterwards, Rod Marsh, always a danger, hooked Willis and, two feet inside the boundary, Dilley judged a brute of a skier to perfection the box shook with delight. Australia had lurched to 74 for 7 and this became 75 for 8 when Geoff Lawson edged Willis to Taylor. Now, surely it was England's match. At this point the listeners could hear the not infrequent pop as bottles of champagne were opened. But in the next four overs Ray Bright and Dennis Lillee, riding their luck, added 35 precious runs and once again the match was wide open. It was agony, but McGilvray perked up no end.

Lillee then rather too ambitiously tried to hook Willis, hit the ball high on the bat and it skied towards mid on, hanging tantalisingly in the air for a long time. Gatting ran furiously in, dived and held on, to England's immense relief. I remember the agony of those few split seconds all too clearly because I had just begun a commentary spell and I was not allowed any champagne. Our producer had my measure.

It was not quite all over because Old managed to drop Alderman twice at third slip in the next over, bowled by Botham. In the one after that, Willis, bowling better and faster than at any point in career so far, produced the yorker from heaven which made an awful mess of Bright's stumps. Willis strode off with a fixed expression on his face and figures of 8 for 43. I was screaming down the microphone as never before. England had won by 18 runs. Now it was champagne galore, although McGillers drowned his sorrows in silence before making off for something stronger after congratulating England on a remarkable victory in tones that suggested he was making the best of a bad job.

Goodness knows how many car crashes I caused with the news of England's victory. This remains by far the greatest moment of my commentating career. It was so extraordinary, unbelievable and brilliant.

Henry Blofeld OBE (or Blowers) is part of the BBC Radio 4 Test Match Special commentary team

Day Five Scoreboard

England - second innings (cont)

IT Botham not out: 149

RGD Willis c Border b Alderman: 2

Total: 356

Bowling: DK Lillee 25-6-94-3, TM Alderman 35.3-6-135-6, GF Lawson 23-4-96-1, RJ Bright 4-0-15-0.

Australia – second innings

J Dyson Taylor b Willis: 34

GM Wood, c Taylor b Botham: 10

TM Chappell, c Taylor b Willis: 8

*KJ Hughes. c Botham b Willis: 0

GN Yallop, c Gatting b Willis: 0

AR Border, b Old: 0

†RW Marsh, c Dilley b Willis: 4

RJ Bright, b Willis: 19

GF Lawson, c Taylor b Willis: 1

DK Lillee, c Gatting b Willis: 17

TM Alderman not out: 0

Total: 111

Fall: 1-13 (Wood), 2-56 (Chappell), 3-58 (Hughes), 4-58 (Yallop), 5-65 (Border), 6-68 (Dyson), 7-74 (Marsh), 8-75 (Lawson), 9-110 (Lillee), 10-111 (Bright).

Bowling: 1-14 IT Botham, 8-43 RGD Willis, 1-21 CM Old

England: win by 18 runs

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