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John Stern rewinds to the 1981 Ashes series - Ian Botham's Ashes - and last year's classic, with the hope that it doesn't take a decade to get over 2005
July 20, 2006
It was a quarter of a century ago today that Ian Botham, with England 135 for 7 following on and 1-0 down against Australia, suggested to Graham Dilley that they should "give it some humpty" and one of the most implausible plot-twists in Test history was underway.
Headingley '81 was a millstone that hung painfully around English cricket's neck until last year when a whole gloriously epic Ashes series inspired a new generation of hero-worshippers. Andrew Flintoff was no longer the new Botham. Botham was the old Flintoff.
Headingley '81 is no longer a millstone. But a year on from The Greatest Series Ever, while England suffer an extended Ashes hangover, it provides a history lesson for English cricket. The video of the series is called Botham's Ashes and rightly so. Bob Willis' 8 for 43 at Headingley is so often over-looked and the whole thing could never have happened without Mike Brearley. But it was basically Botham's series. It was far from being a team effort. And which team? In six Tests, England used 20 players, had two different captains and three different wicket-keepers.
It was Botham's salvation, after a hellish period as captain, and reconfirmed his status as a cricketing superhero. For most of the next decade, England were in his thrall.
Occasional successes against Australia (although not in the 1982-83 series) papered over the cracks of muddled selection and lack of professionalism, not to mention questionable priorities (there were two rebel tours in the 1980s). With each passing Ashes defeat in the 1990s, English cricket passed into the mainstream consciousness as a national joke. Where were the Gowers and Bothams to restore our pride, was the cry. If only people bothered to look below the surface. English cricket is in a far better state now than it was in 1981.
Ashes 2005 differs from 1981 in that it produced consistently great cricket between two very fine teams. For all the wonderment of '81, some of the cricket was very dreary, particularly at the beginning and end of the series. Australia were not a team in 2005 but England certainly were. It will be known as Flintoff's Ashes but more properly it was England's Ashes. They used only 12 players and they all contributed.
At the time it seemed like this was the jumping-off point for a young team to challenge Australia's long-term domination of Test cricket. That hasn't happened. England have won only two of ten Tests since the Ashes and two of their Ashes winners - Simon Jones and Ashley Giles - have not played at all. Other than Kevin Pietersen, their most successful players since the Ashes have been ones who didn't feature in the series: Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Monty Panesar.
England looked like they had rediscovered their hunger in the first Test against Pakistan at Lord's, if not quite their aggressive self-confidence. Flintoff's return at Old Trafford ought to assist that. No England player who participated in last year's Ashes could quite believe the public hysteria that greeted their victory. They knew life would never be the same again but dealing with it is another matter. To have a return series so soon afterwards only fuels the Ashes obsession that continues to grip English cricket.
It is an unhealthy obsession as obsessions generally are. It is hard to kick the habit, even for those of us whose interest in cricket is more than skin-deep. As injuries have taken their toll, the England team has seemed in a post-Ashes limbo waiting for the conquering heroes to return. There are signs that at last the team is moving on although the retention of the injured Michael Vaughan as appointed captain dilutes this progress.
In the 1980s England were dominated by personalities, and one in particular. It took English cricket a generation to get over Headingley '81. History mustn't be allowed to repeat itself.