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The ’81 Ashes through Botham’s eyes: The Miracle of Headingley

The '81 Ashes Through Botham's Eyes: The Miracle Of Headingley
by Wisden Staff 3 minute read

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

July 16, 2021 marks forty years to the day since the Headingley Test of the 1981 Ashes started. 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 second of a five-part series, Botham remembers that remarkable game in all its glory. Part one is available to read here.

Ian Botham had resigned as England Test captain after the second match at Lord’s, with Mike Brearley recalled to the side after an absence of more than a year. He never made a hundred, and wouldn’t play another Test after the end of the 1981 Ashes, but left an indelible mark on the English game with his unmatched leadership skills, with his ability to draw the best out of his players and spot an opportunity for a tactical manoeuvre second to none.

IB: The biggest thing that Brears brings to you, he knows exactly what to say and when to say it. The best way of describing it is, if you’ve ever watched Star Trek, is Spock – I’m a bit of a Trekkie. Brears felt like how I think they wanted Spock to be portrayed. Maybe they got the idea from Brears! He could look into you like he was reading your mind. You felt like he was probing. Obviously it didn’t take too long for him to work it out.

He got the best out of players. He treated everyone differently. That in itself is a massive achievement to be honest, because there’s a lot of complicated characters out there, but he was brilliant at it. Nowadays they probably wouldn’t even play Brears, they’d say he wasn’t a good enough batsman. But do you know what? I’d pick him just for those moments of magic when he produced something, and more often than not, his idea came off. He’s a special guy, and I’ve much respect for him.

Even before the game began, Brearley had had an impact, ensuring that Bob Willis was selected in the side despite a poor showing at Lord’s, and gave Botham some subtle motivation.

IB: The players who were probably the most involved in that game were Bob [Willis] and myself. Bob wasn’t originally picked. Brears took over, and he rang him and Bobby said, ‘Mate, I’m not playing against Warwickshire this week to make sure I’m 100 percent fit for the Headingley game’. And Brears said, ‘OK, that’s good enough for me’. And then when I got to the ground, I was stood there and he walked up to me, and he said, ‘Are you sure you want to play this game?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Are you sure you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Brears, who are we playing? We’re playing Australia. Of course I want to play.’ And he said, ‘Great, I think you’re going to get 10 wickets and a hundred’. He wasn’t far off.

Soon enough, Botham was part way there, taking six wickets in the first innings of the game.

IB: I think the shackles were off. I was getting burdened, bogged down with the captaincy, and also with what was going on off the field. The kids got abused at school. ‘Your dad’s rubbish’ and all this, and Liam got into a couple of scrapes. People can be cruel and kids in the playground exceptionally. It was quite nice just to ram it back down a lot of people’s throats. I did enjoy that aspect of it, I have to be honest.

However, Australia racked up 401-9, and despite a Botham fifty, skittled England for 174 before inviting the hosts to follow on. They then collapsed again to 135-7, still nearly 100 runs behind, when Botham was joined by Graham ‘Picca’ Dilley. The No.9 made 56, which would end up as his his highest Test score, as England battled back into the contest.

IB: He walked out, Picca, and people don’t realise he was a big lad. He was a tall, well-built, strong lad, and he stood there and said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Enjoy yourself. I’m going to!’ It wasn’t the greatest wicket, people have to remember this. He had a bit of luck, I had a bit of luck. He played some shots that Graeme Pollock would have been proud of. It was the best knock I’ve ever seen him play. He was quite magnificent. The Aussies: ‘He’ll nick it, he’ll nick it.’ And he did, yeah, out of the middle of the bat through extra cover more often than not! We enjoyed ourselves, and there was a lot of good banter out in the middle between us and we both enjoyed watching the old Aussies get frustrated, angry.

Chris Old, at No.10, also made a telling contribution, adding 29 in quick time.

IB: He was playing well, and I wasn’t going to make him do anything different or tell him to do anything different. The Aussies got stuck into him but he stuck in there. There was a partnership, and it was more time the Australians were in the field, the pitch was not getting any better. Everyone chipped in really with the bat, in the lower order. They were a very formidable bowling attack that the Aussies had, but they didn’t really have a spinner in that game, which might have been a mistake. But then again, why would you, with the pitch doing all sorts?

With Botham’s swashbuckling 149* underpinning the fightback, England set Australia 130 to win.

IB: Once we got to 100 ahead, I said we’re in this all the way. I said, ‘This pitch is not good.’ The Aussies came in and I got Graeme Wood out early on, and then they were 50-odd for one. Bob got the end he wanted, and the rest, they say, is history.

While the all-rounder might have felt England were in with a chance, what happened next was still extraordinary.

IB: We were actually very relaxed in the dressing room. We felt ‘Come on boys, nothing to lose’. Bob was champing at the bit to get back out there. [I’d never seen him] as intense as he was that game. I remember he was just staring straight through me, and I thought ‘hang on, I’m your mate, remember?’ He was just tunnel vision. All he wanted to do was knock the next Australian batsman over.

One reason I always remember that game, apart from the obvious, is that the reason they were thinking of leaving Bob out, the selectors, is because he bowled too many no-balls. Well at Headingley he didn’t bowl one no-ball in either innings. And 14.3 overs he bowled off the reel coming down the hill, 8-43, one of the greatest fast bowling displays I’ve seen. But we couldn’t talk to him. He goes into that tunnel, and he was just focussed on doing what he does best, and that was bowling as quick as he can and taking wickets. He would take the wicket, pat on the back, and by the time you looked round he was halfway back to the end of his run waiting, waiting for the next Aussie to get out there. I said to the guys, ‘just leave him’.

The performance was all the more remarkable for the injuries Willis was struggling with at the time.

IB: I think just about every game at that stage of his career, with the injuries he’d had, Bob just felt ‘I’ve got to make the most of this’. And he was running in beautifully, no no balls, it was all there. It all came together for Bob. I think every game he was worried he was going to wake up and that would be it, the knee finished, it’s done. But he kept going and fair play to him. He had a lot of painful nights, after bowling.

Willis gave an infamous interview on the balcony at the end of play, including the line ‘The standard of journalism in this country has gone down the nick completely’. It was a sentiment shared by many in the England team.

IB: I think there were a few of us that were… I remember the press were waiting for me down the stairs and I just wrapped a towel round my head and walked straight past them. We all said the same thing. ‘You wrote what you wanted last week, so keep on writing’. But that settles down. I think that was as much as anything the adrenalin that was pumping through us all at that stage.

Still, the win was a moment for celebration.

IB: There were many funny things that happened that evening. The dressing room attendant was a young lad called Ricky Roberts, a South African, 14 years of age, and I got on really well with him. End of the match, we wanted some champagne, but there wasn’t any champagne in the pavilion. We said, ‘Well where is it?’. They said, ‘Well the Australians have got it in their bath’, thinking they were going to be celebrating a victory. So I said to Ricky, ‘Just go over to the dressing room, knock on the door, and say to the Aussies, “Can the England boys be having your champagne because you won’t be needing it?”’ And he did. He went over, knocked on the door, and all I could see was Ray Bright and Rod Marsh as he came flying back through the door! He’s forgiven me now I think…

Botham was back, the series was level, and England had the momentum. But plenty of drama was to follow in one of the greatest Test series ever played.

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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