The Ashes 1981, Third Test: When England beat 500-1 odds in one of the greatest Test matches ever

Ian Botham on his way to epic 149 not out
Ian Botham on his way to epic 149 not out
Swarup Dutta

The third Ashes Test at Headingley in the 1981 series is remembered as one of the greatest Test matches ever played. Numerous articles, blogs and books have been written on this match. But, amazing as it sounds now, it was anything but great cricket for the most part of the match, barring last six hours of play.

Those six hours of crazy, almost-hard-to-believe, almost-scripted-somewhere-else cricket elevated the match to such romanticism that sometimes the thin line between what actually transpired and the myth around it tends to get blurred.

In reality, the match was played under a condition which was mercilessly favourable to the bowlers. It was frequently interrupted by rain and hopelessly lopsided, with Australia miles ahead even till fourth day tea time. The greatest Ashes phoenix story only started unfolding from there.

Ian Botham was replaced as England captain by Mike Brearley, and he started his new phase of captaincy by losing the toss to Kim Hughes. It was a bad toss to lose as the pitch already had plenty of cracks, with a tinge of green and it was a general belief that batting last would be a nightmare here.

In fact, Kim Hughes took some time to go back to the pavilion, consulted with his senior mates and manager, before eventually deciding to bat. England also deliberated long and hard regarding playing John Emburey or not. But, they finally decided to go with four fast bowlers (Chris Old coming in) and part-time spin of Peter Wiley.

The decision hardly seemed to be right as Australia amassed 401 runs over first two days of start-stop episodes. John Dyson, after an initial shaky start, grew in confidence and scored his first Test century. Kim Hughes contributed with 89, an innings which was a queer mix of breathtaking stokes and unusual restraint. He was happy with the end result – “In that wicket 400 was worth a thousand”.

The fact that England bowlers were disappointing in the first innings would be a definite understatement. With so much assistance from the pitch and weather, they either bowled short or did not attack wickets enough. However, there was one exception towards the innings. The fact that Ian Terrence Botham did not have a single five-wicket haul in his last 12 Test matches, was going to change.

Australia went to tea on the second day at 309 for 4 and looked set for much more. But, Botham had other ideas. Brearley did not give him a spell for more than 4 overs at a stretch till then.

After tea, Botham would bowl 16 overs uninterrupted. This was the old Botham running in hard. Of late, he had developed a change in his bowling run-up. Just before delivering, he would move a bit sideways towards the stump. The idea of the manoeuvre was to fetch additional swing. But it was actually interrupting his normal lively action. Brearley told him, “Stop being a Side-step Queen”. Botham went back to his normal run-up and the result was that he would pick-up 5 wickets in that spell (six for 95 in the innings).

Although Ian Botham had delivered with the ball, it was still the Australian dressing-room which was happier of the two.

“We knew that the game was over once they got 400. There was no way in the world that we were ever going to get back into the game” – Graham Dilley.

Next day was Dennis Lillee’s 32nd birthday and he celebrated it with 4 wickets. However, he was not Australia’s best bowler on display. Most of the early damage was done by brilliant Alderman and Geoff Lawson, who took 3 wickets each. The only innings of note was from Botham. He scored his first 50 in his last 22 Test innings and it came run-a-ball, with the most fluent drives seen in the entire match till then.

“It was almost as if you’d taken a child – made him an adult for a while – then allowed him to go back to being a child again”.

It took a brute of a delivery from Lillee to dismiss him, which jumped from the good length, took the glove and Marsh accepted it gleefully. Rest of the England batting was so disappointing that the second highest scorer was Mr. Extra's 34. England were bowled out for 174 in 51 overs. Just three bowlers were needed to knock them over!

England were 227 runs behind Australia and Kim Hughes, after some deliberation, asked them to bat again. The next day would be a rest day and Hughes thought that his bowlers would be able to recharge their batteries and come back fresh.

Following on, England lost Gooch inside three deliveries and finished the day at 6 for 1. The Headingley Electronic scoreboard was the latest addition to the ground and one of the new innovations (was not liked by many. Brearley quipped “Looks like designed by an Australian”). The Ladbrokes’ latest odds were flashing there: Australia was 1-4 to win, the draw was 5-2 and for England victory, 500-1!!

The bet was so ridiculous that Dennis Lillee on a light-hearted moment put a ten for England victory. He also almost forced Marsh to bet a fiver. After the match was over, these bets by Lillee and Marsh became a big story and it was not seen very kindly by many Australian supporters and media. But at that moment, everyone was having a bit of joke on the plight of England. The writing was very much on the wall for them.

One important Milestone was reached on that day. When Rod Marsh caught Ian Botham, he became the wicket-keeper with the highest number of dismissals in the history of Test matches, surpassing Allan Knott’s record of 263.

Marsh was not a natural wicket-keeper. He did not have the technical finesse of a Bob Taylor or the alacrity of a Knott. His crouching style was unique and he was quite chubby to start with - “Forearms like coalminer’s and legs like bollards”. But, hours of practice made him nimble-footed and the way he reached acrobatically to some of the catches or wayward deliveries, were a sight to behold.

It was poetic justice that his world record came with one of the famous scorecard template- “Caught Marsh bowled Lillee”. His best mate in the team was the first to congratulate him. When he came back to the hotel, there was a bottle of champagne delivered to him with a congratulatory note. It came from a certain Allan Knott.

Sunday was a rest day and Botham had a tradition of hosting “Botham barbecue” at his house on the Saturday of every Headingley Test. He invited both the teams and there was no prize for guessing which team looked happier. On Sunday evening, while returning to the team hotel, Botham told his wife that he would check out on Monday morning and should be back home by afternoon or latest by evening.

There was a certain amount of inevitability about the impending England defeat. Yorkshire management gave holidays to all the turnstile operators for Tuesday (they had to be summoned back later). Sydney morning herald brought up an interesting stat – this would be the first Australian team which would be 2-0 up inside first three Ashes Tests since Bradman’s invincibles in 1948.

It did not take too much time for England to start tumbling again. In no time, they were 41 for 4. Defiant Boycott and courageous Peter Willey added 64 good runs. But, then Lillee and Marsh conspired to keep a fly-slip (half-way between slip and third-man) and adding to England’s mounting misfortune, Willey played the next ball in to the hands of that fielder.

England were 105 for 5. They still needed 122 runs to make Australia bat again and it was 2:31 PM at the clock on fourth day afternoon. Ian Botham was entering the ground, without looking at the scoreboard as it hardly mattered. He slashed a ball over the slip soon. The ball went for four.

Botham looked up towards the dressing room and Brearley was indicating him to slash the balls harder. He knew he got a license. At the other end, Boycott and Talyor fell soon and it was 135 for 7, with 92 to make Australia bat again. Graham Dilley joined Botham in the middle.

Graham Dilley, or “Picca” to his team, worked as a diamond setter in London before he got picked up for England (he lost his job after he skipped off to play a match for Kent 2nd XI). His fascinating action, bowling speed and attitude made many believe that England has unearthed a rare diamond.

However, coming to the match, Dilley's confidence level was at the lowest. Now he had to join Botham when only the last rites were to be performed. When he came near Botham, he asked Dilley if he had checked out from the hotel as well. Dilley was taken aback and asked, “What would be our batting strategy, Both?” Botham responded “You don’t fancy hanging around on this wicket for a day and a half do you? Right! Come on! Let’s give it some humpty!”

Dilley and Botham added 117 runs in next 80 minutes of play. In fact, it was Dilley who started the carnage. He threw his bat everything pitching outside the off. Botham followed the suit a few minutes later.

Many of the edges flew from Dilley's bat and ran towards the third man for boundaries. It was typical tail-ender like slogging and everyone in the ground was having a bit of fun. Even the Australians could not conceal a smile at some of the shots.

Somehow, Australia refused to change things. Hughes kept Lillee and Alderman bowling and line was outside the off, with an open third man. Hughes believed that it was only a matter of time that one of those edges would carry. Lillee also agreed to his captain. Talking about Botham's knock later, he would say, “A Bloody lucky innings”.

However, things were changing in the middle. Botham and Dilley looked more and more confident, and Botham looked completely uninhibited as if a shackle had been lifted from his shoulder.

Headingley was getting behind these two now and there was a huge cheer when Dilley and Botham reached their respective 50, and when the deficit was taken care of. Australians were weary by now and they also had to bat again.

Hughes had to make some changes. Alderman was asked to go round the wicket to Dilley. It brought instant result. Dilley inside edged to his wicket. He was out for 56 and walked back to a standing ovation from the ground. England were effectively 252 for 8 now. Everyone thought that fun was over.

Chris Old was the new batsman. He was no muck with the bat (had 7 first-class centuries to his name). Like Dilley, he was also a left-handed batsman and Australia had to again deal with a left-right combination. More importantly, their bowlers were tiring and bowling short.

Hughes was still not inclined to bring his spinner, Ray Bright and mayhem continued. Botham was now playing like a man possessed. At 95, he hit Lawson for two consecutive fours, causing pandemonium in the ground.

Among the cheer and applause, Brearley was signalling vigorously from the Dressing room to him to stay there. Botham just showed him a V-sign and continued in the same vein. His century came in just 87 balls. Since tea break, he had scored 64 runs with 14 fours, one six and only two singles. His second 50 took 30 balls and 40 minutes.

With England’s lead nearing 100, Lawson uprooted Old’s leg-stump with a slow yorker. Old made 29 from 31 balls and added 67 with Botham in just 54 minutes.

In the last 20 minutes of the day's play, as Headingley held its breath, Botham took maximum strike for the last wicket and Willis faced only 5 balls. England finished the day at 351 for 9 with Ian Botham undefeated on 145.

The post-tea session had counted for 175 runs in 27 overs. Botham scored 106 out of them. England were 124 runs ahead now. Although Australia were still the hot favourite, they had work to do.

At the end of the day, two dressing rooms were showing contrasting picture now. Crowd gathered below England dressing room and when Ian Botham came out, they were singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. On the other hand, Australians were stunned, being at the receiving end of the onslaught.

History was made on the next day, July 21, 1981. England could add only 5 runs to their overnight score and Australia were set a target of 130 runs to win. Brearley started with Botham and Dilley, and they started as if Australia needed 330 and not 130.

One long hop and one leg stump volley from Botham were dispatched to boundaries by Wood, and Dilley left the ground with a thigh strain after two most insipid overs (he did not bowl another over in the innings).

England got a lucky break though. Wood tried to cover drive another wide half-volley from Botham and missed. Botham was the only one to appeal and umpire Meyer sent dejected Wood on his away (13 for 1).

After that, Dyson and Trevor Chappell had no issues whatsoever. Bob Willis delivered 5 unremarkable overs against the wind from Rugby stand end, and then famously told Brearley, “Too old for doing this any further”.

Australia were 56 for 1 and the duo was slowly and surely providing the finishing touch. Brearley now switched Willis to Kirkstall lane end and immediately Willis started bowling much quicker. He made one delivery jump off the good length viciously to Chappell. He had no clue as he just jumped to save his face. The ball hit the handle of the bat and flew to Taylor (56 for 2).

Kim Hughes came next with lunch just minutes away, spent 14 anxious minutes without a run and then ended up edging another lifting ball from Willis. Botham dived to his left and clutched the ball (58 for 3).

Three balls later came another vicious lifter from Willis. Graham Yallop somehow played from his throat. Mike Gatting was standing at short leg. He seemed to be momentarily stuck on his feet and then lunged forward to take a brilliant catch (58 for 4). Lunch was taken. But, not many of either team were much interested in eating.

Chris Old started proceeding after lunch. Soon, he made provided one of the vital break-through. Allan Border was not fully forward to one of his incoming delivery, got an inside edge and the ball crashed into the stumps (65 for 5).

John Dyson, who was holding one end till then, edged one bouncer from Willis and Taylor grabbed it (68 for 6). Next was Rod Marsh and he was not known for going down without a fight.

Graham Dilley was fielding at fine leg and was praying “Please… Please .. Don’t bowl a bouncer”. And, Willis bowled a bouncer and Marsh hooked and it went miles up towards Dilley. He first thought it to be going for a six. But the ball was coming down now and he started back-paddling. Botham and Brearley looked at each other in the slip “Oh.. No… It’s Picca”. Dilley caught it one foot away from the rope. Headingley went wild (74 for 7). For the first time, England started believing that they could actually win. Geoff Lawson came and lasted just 2 balls – C Taylor B Willis and it was 75 for 8.

Things changed in the next 20 minutes. Lillee and Bright threw their bats and added 35 runs in quick time. Just 20 to win now and England were again on the back-foot. The field was being spread. Hands were on the hips. People were on their feet, chewing their nails. Willis gave one more burst. Blowing his cheeks out with the effort, the “Goose” of the team delivered one more spell of the highest quality.

One such outswinger from Willis was tentatively played by Lillee and the ball lobbed in the air towards the mid-on. Mike Gatting had misjudged it. He took one step backwards at first and then moved forward like a cat. Just before the ball landed on the ground, he launched himself forward and clinched it. The corresponding celebration was, as per Bothams’ words, “as if we scored the winning goal of F.A cup final”.

Alderman was the next man in and Ian Botham had the ball. Alderman edged the second ball of the over and Chris Old dropped a sitter in the slip. Barely had people lifted their plunged head, there was another edge and another drop by Old. This time, it was a harder chance though.

At 2:20 PM in the afternoon, the first ball of 16th over bowled by Willis was full, fast and straight. Ray Bright went for the drive, played over the ball and his middle stump spun out of the ground. England had done the unthinkable. Willis flung both arms skyward in victory and started running towards the pavilion. He had taken 8 for 43 and England had won by 18 runs.

The scene at Headingley was something which could not be described in words. For records, Ian Botham was the man of the match and Fred Trueman famously mentioned during the presentation, “A Captain’s performance which came one match late”.

Shell-shocked Kim Hughes kept his composure and in the post-match-presentation said, “It was great just to be part of this match. Cricket was the real winner today“. England players negotiated with the Australians to get few champagne bottles, which were already put on ice in anticipation of a famous Australia victory. They deserve their sip. They became the first team since 1894 and only second team in Test match history to follow-on and win from there. Pat Gibson wrote in the Daily Express, “Greatest comeback since Lazarus”.

Looking forward for Shikhar Dhawan's captaincy! - Yuvraj Singh in an exclusive Interview with SK

Edited by Kumud Ranjan
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