March 12, 2015

When Willis batted and Boycs bowled

In a closely fought World Cup game against Pakistan in 1979, two of England's star players did a Freaky Friday to take their side to victory

Boycott the bowler: two of his five one-day wickets were taken in this match on his home ground © PA Photos

The 1979 World Cup in England was dominated by Clive Lloyd's West Indies. The reigning champions entered the competition as firm favourites and went through undefeated. Ultimately they were largely untroubled in retaining the crown, but who they would face in the final was one of the more intriguing questions of the tournament.

The runners-up from 1975, Australia, did not select any of their Packer-aligned players, and were never in serious contention of making it through to even the semi-finals. West Indies were in Group B, and their main competition was seen to come from either England or Pakistan, who were both drawn in Group A.

During the preliminary stage of the tournament, both Pakistan and England were undefeated after each had comprehensively beaten Australia and Canada. Whichever team finished first in the pool would avoid playing the dominant West Indies in the semi-final and instead take on a plucky but clearly less intimidating New Zealand. In an example of either excellent planning or just plain luck, the final Group B match between England and Pakistan would determine which side would finish on top.

The match was played at Headingley in front of a crowd that featured strong support for both sides. Poor weather in the lead-up had disappeared on the day, but it had left conditions thought to favour the bowling side. It was therefore not a huge surprise when Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal chose to field first after winning the toss.

While this was the second World Cup, one-day cricket and specific tactics for playing this shortened form of the game were still very much in their infancy. England's choice of opening batsmen, Mike Brearley and Geoff Boycott, was a contrast to the hard-hitting strokemakers who currently dominate limited-overs top orders.

Pakistan got off to almost the perfect start, with Brearley edging the second ball from Imran Khan through to Wasim Bari before a run had been scored. The scoreboard quickly worsened when Derek Randall also nicked one to the keeper, this time from Sikandar Bakht, and England were two down with just four runs on the board.

In such a situation, Boycott was the ideal person to shore up the innings. With Graham Gooch, he pushed the score past 50 before he was dismissed by the underrated spin of Majid Khan for 18. Gooch was joined by David Gower, but both fell before the score reached 100.

When Majid took his third wicket, of Ian Botham for 22, England were 115 for 6. Pakistan then appeared to take a stranglehold on the game, dismissing Phil Edmonds and Chris Old in quick succession. England were in desperate need of a batting saviour, and it came in the improbable form of Bob Willis.

While wicketkeeper Bob Taylor held up an end, Willis scored an unlikely 24. This innings has been perhaps uncharitably described as featuring not a single shot from the middle of the bat, but the partnership with Taylor was worth 43 and was invaluable in such a low-scoring innings. Through their efforts, England were ultimately able to bat out their entire quota of 60 overs, but the final score of 165 did not appear to be enough to set up the win.

England's despondency at their low score was quickly magnified when Pakistan's opening pair of Majid and Sadiq Mohammad reached 27 in quick time. However, what followed was a batting collapse of the highest order. Mike Hendrick and Botham combined magnificently in conditions that still favoured seam bowling, and Pakistan lost an astonishing six wickets in five overs while scoring just seven runs. Pakistan's very impressive middle order of Mudassar Nazar, Zaheer Abbas, Haroon Rashid and Javed Miandad were dismissed having made four runs among them. Suddenly the winning total of 166 was a long way off.

Asif started the recovery. He played a true captain's innings and, with Wasim Raja, started to move the scoreboard forward again. The score reached 115 with just the additional loss of Raja for 21. The game was still in favour of the home team, but Pakistan had shown their fighting spirit to get back into contention.

England's batting hero Willis then took the vital wicket of Asif. He had scored 51, which was easily the highest score for either side. Pakistan still had allrounder Imran Khan at the wicket, and he was joined by Bari. Time and overs were not a factor, and the pair gradually whittled the target down. Soon just 20 runs were needed and England were starting to show signs of nerves.

However, on a day when Willis was one of the batting heroes, it almost makes perverse sense that Boycott got the crucial breakthrough. Brearley chose to only use his spinner, Phil Edmonds, for three overs, and instead entrusted the ball to Boycott's part-time medium pace at the end of the innings. Boycott took just seven wickets in his 108 Test matches, but his bowling turned this match for the final time. Bari attempted a cut shot off Boycott but only managed an inside edge and Taylor held an excellent catch standing up to the stumps.

Imran and Bakht briefly kept Pakistan's dwindling hopes alive, and needed only another 14 runs when Boycott took the final wicket. Bakht was somewhat unlucky, hitting a half-volley very hard but towards Hendrick, who leapt into the air at mid-off and clutched the ball one-handed above his head.

England's victory took them to the top of their group. They then beat a very competitive New Zealand side in another close affair in the first semi-final. In the other semi-final, West Indies defeated Pakistan, but not before Majid and Zaheer had caused some serious concerns with a magnificent partnership of 166.

The final was a one-sided match, with West Indies easily accounting for England. It is arguable now that Pakistan may have put up a better effort than England in the final, but the pivotal match in deciding the tournament finalists was the final pool match that England won by just 14 runs.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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