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The ’81 Ashes through Botham’s eyes: England’s second miracle

by Wisden Staff 4 minute read

In association with Botham Wines, Lord Ian Botham relives the 1981 Ashes as he remembers it.

This summer marks forty years to the day since the 1981 Ashes was played. The Test series is remembered as one of the greatest ever played, with one man at the heart of it all. Ian Botham was Player of the Match in the three games England won, with his 149* at Headingley helping script an incredible comeback, only the second time in history a team had won after following on. In the third of a five-part series, Botham recalls England’s other remarkable comeback from that series, which relied on a tool hitherto unutilised by English bowlers. Part two is available to read here.

England’s Botham-inspired victory at Headingley had entirely changed the complexion of the series. While the scoreline was level, Botham felt his team were unstoppable from then on.

IB: We were on the crest of a wave then. We were a bit like a tsunami, I don’t think anything was going to stop us. From that point on, the boys were itching to get out there. We had all the aces. The Aussies were probably feeling in control after the first and second Test but it wasn’t to be.

Still, the third Test at Edgbaston was a nervy, tense affair, with the game holding the record for the most runs made in a game without any player reaching a half-century. According to Botham, the crowd deserve plenty of the credit for keeping England in the game.

IB: It turned a little bit, but that was more towards the end of the game. When you played at Edgbaston in those days, we certainly got a lot of wickets because of the way they intimidated the opposition with the noise. I still remember running into bowl there in that spell. And as I started the run, it was quiet, and then as I started to run in, it just escalated, the volume of noise. You could see the Aussies, it did get to them. It made you feel another six inches taller. They were absolutely magnificent, the crowd. They should have all got a Man of the Match medal.

Once again, England set Australia a small, but not insignificant target, this time of 151 to win. They had made it to 105-4, and England captain Mike Brearley asked his talisman to do something special. Botham, however, felt the moment wasn’t yet made for him.

IB: It was funny because Brears said to me, ‘I think you should have a bowl. You have a bowl at Embers’ end’. And I said, ‘I think you should give him another over. Because they’ve got a left-hander in, and we want him out’ – AB, who would be capable of hanging around. And then the very next over, Gatt took a very good catch at short leg. And I nodded to Brears then, and so Embers, who’d just taken a wicket, was out of the attack, and I came in.

What happened next was dramatic in the extreme. Botham took the last five wickets to fall in 28 balls, conceding just one run. Australia collapsed to 121 all out, undone by drastic late movement.

IB: That was the first time in those days we really got the ball to reverse. I was holding the ball to swing that way like a conventional outswinger, and it was just going ‘woomph’ [gestures inwards] at the last minute. So I scratched my head and thought what’s going on here? It was a very dry surface, very very dry, and that’s exactly what it did. We didn’t put any moisture into the ball, and it reversed. We didn’t know what it was. We’d seen it being done in the subcontinent. But then again, those pitches are so dry over there that we didn’t twig it. It’s the first time I was really aware of it to be honest, and we used it a few more times, mostly abroad. Don’t put moisture into the ball and let one side rough up, naturally. I’m not sure it was always done naturally, but certainly from our point of view, that was the first time we’d really seen it happen.

If the momentum had been in England’s favour heading into Edgbaston, another defeat in such similar circumstances felt decisive.

IB: There was a bit of banter out there. ‘You couldn’t do 130, what chance is there of you doing 150?’ You were always wary of the Australians. They are so competitive. But we’d won the series by the time we’d won that.

Still, there were two games left to play, and Botham had one more act of brilliance left in him.

Over the course of the summer we are working in partnership with Botham Wines to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Botham’s Ashes. Forty years as an international cricketer and commentator have taken Botham to wineries and vineyards across the globe in the development of his own range of wines. He worked passionately with renowned winemakers to create bespoke blends to his exacting standards. Only when a wine is good enough to go on his own table does Ian allow his name to go on the label. For more information visit www.bothamwines.com


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