June 18, 2021 marks forty years to the day since 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 first of a five-part series, Botham remembers a tragic tour to the West Indies, and the end of his ill-fated captaincy stint, which would spur him onto incredible heights.
Ian Botham’s performance in the ‘81 Ashes was all the more remarkable for what came before it. Having been made England captain the previous summer, Botham’s first tour, to West Indies, was struck by tragedy when England great Ken Barrington, with the team as assistant manager, died from a heart attack at the age of 50.
IB: It really just escalated, but we held it together pretty well as a team. Kenny was a massive blow. The old Colonel, as we called him, he was very much part of the team. His official title was assistant manager I think, but as far as the team was concerned, he was our coach, and just great company. One of the nice things about Kenny, and this was a lesson I learned very early on, you never heard him say, ‘in my day’. He never referred to ‘in my day’ ever. It was always up to date.
I got a phone call in my room. Myself and my wife had been out. I’d seen Kenny that evening, and we were going out, he was going out. It all happened around midnight, one o’clock. I was captain, I suppose it was logical, they rang me about 6.30, because they didn’t want it coming from somewhere else, someone banging on the door, a news reporter saying ‘reaction to this?’ I got up and went up to AC Smith’s room, the team room, sat there with him. We ummed and ahhed. He said, ‘Do you want to play this Test?’ And I said, ‘Let’s think about the Colonel. He would want us to play this Test, he wouldn’t want us to do anything else but play and he’d love it if we could win.’ So we pulled the players in, told the guys. There were a lot of tears shed, and there were a lot of tears shed when we went out the next morning, the two teams. It was a very emotional Test.
Botham went into the Ashes without a win in his first nine games as captain. However, considering those Tests all came against the mighty West Indies, there was some mitigation. But he conceded that perhaps leadership came to soon for him.
IB: At the end of the day we lost 1-0 at home and 2-0 away because we played them back to back. I was learning as I was going along, coping with different situations. One of the biggest problems was, ‘When someone drops the simplest of catches, you’ll go and pat them on the back.’ I’ll go and kick them up the arse. I just don’t get that. We’re applauding failure. With hindsight, maybe I should have said no, but hindsight’s a very powerful weapon. 24 years of age and you get the knock on the door, would you like to be captain? You’re not going to say no. But I’m a great believer that you ride the torpedo to the end of the tube. Everything that happened happened for a reason, and who knows? ‘81 might not have happened if I’d stayed as captain. Maybe it freed me up. Better off being a sergeant major than being the general.
England lost a tense first Test by four wickets. The game was low-scoring with the advantage going back and forth – it still holds the record for the most runs scored in a match without one player making a half-century.
IB: We should have won that. One of my most reliable catchers, David Gower, dropped a skier, and if he had taken that, we’d have won the game. But they scraped through. I look at it now and think, did we deserve to win that game? Yes I thought we did. But we made up for it. I’m quite happy with the path it took.
In the second Test at Lord’s, Botham’s form, which had been drifting, dropped off a cliff. He made a pair, and though the match was drawn, his captaincy tenure came to a sour end.
IB: At Lord’s I went there and I started to feel not quite so happy with myself. What a lot of people didn’t realise was that Alec Bedser and his team decided to give me game-by-game captaincy. At the end of that game I walked straight up to Alec Bedser and said, ‘Alec, I can’t work like this. My family can’t live like this. The team don’t deserve this.’ And I resigned. I thought it was quite amusing, about half an hour later, the boys got the TV on in the dressing room, everyone was getting changed and having a drink at the end of the game, and Alec Bedser comes on and says ‘He resigned but I was going to sack him anyway’. That’s what I was working with at that time.
I was very happy in the news conference to say, ‘there’s a bloke called Mike Brearley, I think I might bring him back for the rest of the series. I think he might be able to settle the dressing room.’ I thought, ‘time to walk.’
Brearley’s Test career would come to an end at the conclusion of that series. But his impact would be seismic…
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