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The Ashes Legends – 1981: Ian Botham’s Ashes – Headingley Test

Ian Botham reaches 100, England v Australia, 3rd Test, Headingley, July 1981.
Yash Asthana

Ian Botham reaches 100, England v Australia, 3rd Test, Headingley, July 1981.

Described by Richie Benaud as the greatest Test match ever played, and the game where the legend of Ian Botham started, the Test of Headingley 1981 occupies a special position in the Ashes folklore. Botham produced the unimaginable when it was least expected and most needed, and became a national hero.

Headingley, July 18, 1981: Falling short of the Aussie total of 401 by 227 runs in the first innings and following on, the signs were ominous for England on the third day of the 3rd Ashes Test. It got worse when Graham Gooch got out for a duck in the second innings and England ended the third day’s play at 6 for 1.

They had lost the 3-match ODI series against the Aussies 1-2 and were trailing 0-1 in the series after a defeat and a draw in the first two Tests. Ian Botham, who had been having an indifferent tenure as England captain, and had bagged a pair in the second Test, was replaced as captain by Mike Brearley.

The next day, which was a Sunday, was a rest day and the English team’s performance was blasted by the newspapers. Ladbrokes offered the odds of 500-1 for an English win, and the picture of the odds being displayed on the Headingley electronic scoreboard later went to make the cover picture of “Phoenix from the Ashes”, the book written by Mike Brearley to cover the fortunes of the English side in the summer of 1981. Finding the odds amusing, Aussie players Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee placed bets on an English win to humour themselves (a similar bet in modern-day cricket will land the players straight in prison). The English team, anticipating a certain defeat on the fourth day of the match, checked out from their hotel on Monday morning.

On Monday, when play resumed, things seemed to go as per plan for the Aussies as England slipped to 135 for 7, with an innings defeat looming large. England would fall behind 0-2 with two games to go, and Marsh and Lillee would lose their bet money.

But destiny had other things in mind. Botham was joined by Graham Dilley at the crease, and he reportedly told his teammate, “Right then, let’s have a bit of fun!”

Dilley gave good support to Botham and the pair put on 117 runs in quick time before Terry Alderman clean bowled Dilley for a well-made 56. Chris Old came to the crease and helped Botham add 67 runs. The day ended with England at 351 for 9 with Botham at 145* and Bob Willis at 1*, and left the home team searching for hotel beds for the night as the match went to the fifth day.

On the final day of the Test, the English could add only 5 more runs to their total, ending on 356, with Botham having played an innings of a lifetime – an unbeaten 149, hitting 27 fours and a famous six that Richie Benaud described as ” going straight into the confectionery stall and out again”. Using a bat borrowed from Gooch, Botham’s innings was a mixture of orthodox and innovative shots, with each shot being hit with brute power. As Willis later said, “He just went out there and slogged”. The knock was rated by Wisden as the fourth-best innings of all time.

However, despite Botham’s heroics, Australia needed a meagre 130 runs to win the Test, and seemed to be cruising towards victory with the score reading 56-1. It was then that Bob Willis, who went wicket-less in the first innings, turned things around with an inspired spell of bowling. Willis had a discussion with skipper Brearley who told him to focus on bowling fast and straight, and was given to bowl down the slope.

Willis ended with bowling figures of 8-43 and helped dismiss the Aussies for 111, giving England a famous victory. It was just the second instance of a team following-on and winning the match. It was a day when the trading at the city stock exchange was halted to enable everyone witness the scenes at the match.

LEEDS - JULY 21: The Headingley crowd at the end of the match, 3rd Test England v Australia at Headingley 1981

LEEDS – JULY 21: The Headingley crowd at the end of the match, 3rd Test England v Australia at Headingley 1981

The win turned the tide in England’s favour, and they went on to win the next two Tests and draw the last game, taking the Ashes 3-1. Botham starred again with both bat and ball, taking 5-11 in the second innings at Edgbaston & 6-125 in the first innings at the Oval, and scored a brilliant 118 at Old Trafford. He finished the Ashes with a total of 399 runs and 34 wickets, and was unsurprisingly named the Man of the Series.

Headingley has been a ground which has seen many magical innings from Don Bradman. He scored 334 in 1930, and followed it up with 304 in 1934. But since the day of Monday, 20th July 1981, Headingley will be remembered for Botham’s swashbuckling innings which turned the game, and the series, and made him a national hero and an Ashes legend. It was a turnaround so impossible that it’s still hard to believe; a spectacular resurrection in the career of Botham, and the fortunes of the English team.

Edited by Staff Editor

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