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Not the crowd, not the players, not the bookmakers, no one could believe the most incredible Ashes turnaround of them all
August 6, 2009
England 174 (Botham 50, Lillee 4-49) and 356 (Botham 149*, Dilley 56, Alderman 6-135) beat Australia 401 - 9 decl. (Dyson 102, Hughes 89, Botham 6-95) and 111 (Willis 8-43) by 18 runs
It's still called the greatest Test of all time and the Miracle of Headingley - the most unbelievable reversal in fortunes in the history of the Ashes.
At the time I honestly don't believe that anyone who witnessed it - either live on TV or at Headingley - could quite believe that we'd fought our way back from a succession of seemingly impossible positions to beat Australia in such dramatic, utterly implausible circumstances. In fact I can tell you that most of the players on either team could scarcely believe it either.
Afterwards I was as stunned as the Aussies. Not until hours later - as I was driving down the M1 in the early evening - did I fully appreciate exactly what we'd done and how we'd achieved it. It simply hadn't sunk in before then. I heard the reports on the car radio and actually said to myself, "No, we couldn't have won."
The game itself is so well known that I hardly have to go through the fine detail of it. How Australia piled up 401 before declaring, how we were bowled out miserably for 174 and were forced to follow on, and then how we found ourselves on the brink of being crushed, on 135 for seven in our second innings, before Ian Botham began his belligerent, brilliant hitting to change everything. At one stage the bookmakers made us 500-1 to beat the Australians. More like 1000-1 in our eyes. By rights we didn't have a chance.
Headingley '81 will always belong to Botham, whose summer went through the extremes of professional triumph and disaster. The disaster came when he had to give up the England captaincy after losing the first Test and then drawing in the second at Lord's, where he also got pair. Botham had taken over from Mike Brearley. On form alone, he was the natural choice - 140 wickets and more than 1300 runs, including six centuries, in 25 Tests. It proved to be the wrong move. He drew eight and lost four of his 12 Tests.
Of course the triumph came at Headingley and then Edgbaston, and I was privileged to be part of it. But I have to admit one thing. I wouldn't have been in the team at all if Botham had still been skipper. I only got my chance at Headingley because Brearley was brought back in a last, desperate measure to save a series that we were in danger of losing badly.
My problems with Botham started on the winter tour of the West Indies. We disagreed over several things, and particularly his handling of Graham Dilley, who was still a month away from his 21st birthday and on only his second overseas tour. Botham wasn't good at dealing with the psychological aspects of captaincy. When Dilley bowled a few bad balls, or things didn't go well for him in the first Test in Trinidad, Botham's idea of dealing with it certainly didn't match my own. He started to take the mickey out of Dilley. There were a string of leg-pulling remarks that Botham actually meant in a serious way. I could see that Dilley felt worse because of them. He took 0 for 73. Nothing Botham said was geeing him up. On the contrary, I could see from his demeanour and his body language that he was suffering even more.
I told Botham that he ought to be encouraging Dilley instead of making smart remarks, which weren't helping the situation. He told me that Dilley shouldn't be mollycoddled. From then on, I made sure I stood at mid-on and mid-off, where the ball could be returned to me and I could walk it over to Dilley and hopefully help him with a few constructive pieces of advice and some kind words. When we moved on to Guyana - having lost by an innings in Trinidad - I had a long sit down with Botham to outline my concerns. After this I wasn't selected to play for England during his time as captain.
West Indies were undoubtedly the world's greatest team back then. Their pace attack and the batting of Viv Richards made them almost unbeatable, which added to the pressure on Botham. After he quit and was replaced by Brearley, I thought I might be picked for Headingley. After all, it was my "home". If anyone knew the atmospheric vagaries of the ground, and the condition of the pitch, then it had to be me. I also knew that Brearley both respected me and thought he could rely on my bowling.
Having been with Yorkshire for so long, I always had set space in which to get changed at Headingley. When I arrived for the Test, Botham had taken the place alongside it. "Welcome back," he said, stretching out his hand, "it's great to see you again." If he thought it was so great, I said to myself, then why hadn't he tried to persuade me to rejoin the side earlier in the season? I have to say that I felt rather uncomfortable with the situation. But as a professional I had to get on with it. Brearley was the polar opposite of Botham. Given his training as a psychologist, he instinctively knew - or soon worked out - who needed a kick in the backside or an arm wrapped around their shoulder to make them perform. He watched his players closely, and his expertise meant he knew what to say to them too.
It seemed, however, that not even Brearley's extraordinary powers could guide us to a win this time. Half way through our second innings, Australia were already planning for a day off - and also believed the Ashes were almost theirs again. I remember sitting on the balcony with Dilley just before he went into bat. "What should we do?" he asked. "Just have a go," I replied. He did. Dilley stood up and began bludgeoning boundaries. He hit the ball especially hard. At first the Aussies didn't take much notice. After all no one thought it would make any difference. It was dismissed as token resistance, something to make the scorecard look a little more respectable.
I'm convinced that Dilley's attitude and approach inspired Botham. At Somerset, he had a contest with Viv Richards to see which of them could strike the ball harder and furthest. He began to have the same contest with Dilley, and it became a fantastic piece of theatre. When Dilley was out, for 56 off only 75 balls, I came in. On the way to the crease, I congratulated him on a magnificent innings. "Just do the same," he said. As I got to the middle, Botham came across. "I suppose you're going to take a similar approach," he said.
The Australians were beginning to get frustrated rather than fearful, and I think I added to their sense of irritation because I'm a left-hand batsman. The bowlers found themselves having to change their line from Botham to me and back again, and it disturbed them. There is always a "tipping point" - the moment when the balance of a game shifts from one team to the other. And I noticed it when the Australians began to have more than one captain on the field. Kim Hughes was actually in charge, but soon Dennis Lillee, Geoff Lawson and Allan Border were waving fielders this way and that. Someone would be dispatched to the spot where the ball had just gone. The field became so spread that we could actually pick the gaps with our shots. My job was to persuade Botham not to try to hit every ball clean out of Headingley.
I made 29 off 31 deliveries before Lawson bowled me a slow-ish yorker, which I misjudged. It took my leg stump. I went back into the dressing room to be met by Brearley. "How do you think we're going?" he asked. "Well," I said "if we could get another fifty or sixty runs we might have a chance. But I don't really think so." That conversation shows how much I knew!
Sometimes it can be difficult to chase small totals. I didn't expect it would be so difficult that the Aussies would fail to do it. On the evening before the final day, as expectations about our chances began to rise, I went into my local for a pint of Tetley's. "I've put a fiver on England at 500-1," someone told me. "You can have 20% if you pull it off." I'd experienced so much pressure that I didn't want to think about the Test, let alone talk about it. The money didn't interest me.
Even though my figures didn't suggest so - I finished with 0 for 91 - I thought I'd bowled well in the first innings. Watching the highlights of each day again fairly recently, I noticed that the edges I got simply hadn't carried - usually falling six inches short - and that there'd been a lot of playing and missing against me. The wickets had gone to Botham. He took six of them.
As the second innings began, I just had to put the ball on a length, or just short of it, and see what I could do. With the Australians 56 for 1, the match looked as good as over. At lunch we pinpointed Border as the danger man. If we could get him out, we thought we'd got an outside chance.
I always enjoyed bowling to left-hand batsmen. I had the ability to make the ball come into them and I tried to keep my line tight. After the interval, I bowled the first over - and gave Border what I regard as three of the best balls I've ever delivered in Test cricket. The first rose and cut back so sharply that Bob Taylor had to dive down the leg side. The second landed around off stump, but came in before cutting away again like an offbreak. Taylor was in front of first slip when he took it. The third was almost identical to the first. Border tried to leave it - but the ball didn't leave him. It caught the bottom of the bat and rattled into his stumps. It was the only wicket I claimed in the match. It is also the most pivotal one I've ever taken. I have the most wonderful photograph as a souvenir. The camera shutter clicks just as the ball is taking Border's off stump.
While everyone talks about Botham's innings, the key to knocking over Australia at the end was Bob Willis. He didn't particularly like bowling down the hill at Headingley, which is where Brearley put him. Again the captain was right. Willis was fierce, nasty and always challenging. He came at them like a rocket and finished with a fantastic 8 for 43. I'll never forget the shattered look on the faces of the Aussies - all out for 111 and beaten by 18 runs. The rest was just a blur: shouting, yelling, a packed dressing room, champagne, TV crews and reporters.
I arrived at my hotel in Sheffield to prepare for Yorkshire versus Sri Lanka at Abbeydale Park. That night I sat in bed with a bottle of champagne and two pints of Guinness. The following morning everything was rather hazy to say the least. But I got one more lucky break: it was pouring down and thankfully we didn't have to play. I doubt I'd have seen the ball.
I figured in other memorable Ashes moments. I saw first hand, and close up, the frightening speed of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson on my first tour in 1974-75. When I got back to the nets at Yorkshire, John Hampshire admitted that he'd ducked against them while sitting on his sofa at home. I also played in the Centenary Tests of 1977 in Melbourne and 1980 at Lord's. In Melbourne I pulled a hamstring on the first day and spent the rest of the match heavily strapped. I still bowled more overs than anyone else in the second innings - 27.6 of eight balls apiece - and took four wickets for match figures of 7 for 143. Whenever I left my hotel room, I ran into one of the all-time greats. The atmosphere on the opening morning was tense not just because there were around 90,000 people at the MCG, but also because we all knew that anyone who'd ever played in an Ashes Test - from Donald Bradman to Ray Lindwall, from Denis Compton to Harold Larwood - was sitting in that crowd.
I still can't "escape" Headingley '81, however. Every so often, my phone will ring and someone will still want to chat about the match, which was voted Britain's most memorable sporting moment. It'll still be talked about one hundred years from now.
There is an interesting postscript to the '81 series. In the next Test at Edgbaston, Botham came across to me and said: "I don't know why I've come on to bowl - you're doing so much better than me." I replied that I thought the captain knew what he was doing. Australia needed only 151 to win and were 105 for 5. Botham promptly took five wickets for one run in 28 balls and we won by 29 runs.
No captain other than Brearley could have done it.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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