'I don't think odds of 500-1 have appeared since'

Rod Marsh is dismissed while attempting to hook Willis on the final day at Headingley Getty Images

The 1981 Ashes was the culmination of a five-year period where Bob Willis was England's leading fast bowler. At his best, Willis was one of the world's best.

From the beginning of the 1977 Ashes to the end of the 1981 Ashes, Willis took 149 wickets from 39 Tests at an average of 23.46.

In the previous seven years since he made his debut, as a replacement for the injured Alan Ward on Ray Illingworth's Ashes tour in 1970-71, he'd managed only 78 at 28.35 from 24 Tests.

It all changed in 1977, at the Centenary Test, when England captain Tony Greig brought Willis on for a late spell. Australia were racking up a decent second-innings total and Greig needed someone to break through to the lower order before the Australians were out of sight. Unfortunately, when Greig turned to his premier strike bowler, Willis wasn't up to the task.

"Tony gave me a rollicking after the game, and from then on, I got myself properly fit for the job in hand," Willis says. "I started a regime of slow long-distance running and the injuries mostly disappeared after that. From then on my bowling was far more controlled. I had the ability to take the second new ball at a quarter to six in the evening and turn in a performance."

The following year Willis went on England's tours to Pakistan and New Zealand, where, he says, he played some of the most boring cricket ever.

"I sent Ian Botham in to quicken the pace of the innings. Conveniently, he ran Geoffrey [Boycott] out. Did I instruct him to run out the captain? Yes, I suppose I did"

"Mudassar Nazar's hundred in the first Test, at Lahore, was the slowest ever in Test Match cricket [Mudassar scored 114 from 449 balls in 591 minutes]. John Wright batted at the same pace to get 55 at Wellington, but at least it was on a dodgy pitch. First ball of the match, I bowled and Wright edged one, which wicketkeeper Bob Taylor took in front of second slip. Not out, the umpire said.

"Mike Brearley had his arm broken by Sikandar Bakht in a provincial game in Pakistan and Geoffrey Boycott took over the captaincy, which was an interesting experience.

"In the second Test, at Christchurch, we just failed to enforce the follow-on. We were about 180 ahead with a day and a session to go, and needed to score 100 to 120 runs in that session and then declare and have the whole day to bowl at them.

"Brian Rose, who'd been in terrible form all tour, opened with Boycott and couldn't hit the ball off the square. Ewan Chatfield ran Derek Randall out, backing up, without warning him, which didn't please many of us. I was vice-captain and I sent Ian Botham in to quicken the pace of the innings. Conveniently, he ran Geoffrey out. Did I instruct him to run out the captain? Yes, I suppose I did.

"Trying to persuade Geoffrey to declare was a very difficult task. But eventually he did, and then Ian and I bowled New Zealand out in about three hours. We didn't have a very good team for that tour. We'd lost players to World Series cricket. Without Packer, some of those players would have never played Test cricket."

In the next three years, Willis was at his peak as England's strike bowler. He missed just two Tests, in 1980 against West Indies and the return Centenary Test against Australia, dropped for bowling too many no-balls. In his early years as an international bowler, Willis spent almost as much time on the physio's table as he did on the field.

Willis says that his golden period as a world-class fast bowler culminated in the 1981 Ashes and the Headingley Test. What happened in that match has become part of cricketing folklore. England followed on and were seven wickets down for 135 in their second innings. Botham, sacked as captain before the Test, smashed a remarkable149 not out. And then, supported by Graham Dilley and Chris Old, he gave England a lead of 129 runs.

Then, with Australia poised to go two up in the series, Willis charged in and took 8 for 43 to bundle Australia out for 111 and see England home by 18 runs.

One of cricket's greatest stories. But it nearly didn't happen

Willis had taken eight wickets in the first two Tests, which was okay. But England had lost the match in the first and drawn the second. Mike Brearley was coming back as captain for the Headingley Test. Back then, England had a tendency to change the team around when they lost a few games, so Bob Woolmer was left out to accommodate Brearley. Seamer Chris Old replaced offspinner John Emburey. And the third and final change was going to be Mike Hendrick for Willis.

"I nearly got left out, yes," Willis recalls. "I had flu during the Lord's Test. So I didn't play in the subsequent Warwickshire game against Surrey at The Oval, the only round of county games before the Headingley Test.

"I think if we'd have lost that game, it would have been the end for myself and probably several others in that side"

"On the second morning, the phone rang, and it was Alec Bedser saying, 'I'm sorry, Bob, you're not selected for Leeds. Mike Brearley is keen to have everybody 100% fit.' I told Alec that the only reason I wasn't playing in the Warwickshire match is so that I could shake off the flu and be fit for England. He said, 'Is there any cricket you can play to prove your fitness?' and I ended up playing a one-day 2nd XI game back in Birmingham.

"Alec rang up Donald Carr's brother, who was the secretary at Derbyshire, to intercept Mike Hendrick's letter of invitation to play for England. I persuaded Alec that I was fit to play. That's how close I got to not playing in that game.

"After the Lord's Test we all felt desperately sorry for Ian, who we thought had a pretty rough deal. He skippered a home Test series against the West Indies and then the rained-off Centenary Test at Lord's and then off to the West Indies for another drubbing. Not an easy tenure. We were all great mates with him, so there was a lot of sympathy, and of course, the popular press were seriously on our backs.

"Mike Brearley was very much a unifying force and stood no nonsense, though. It turned out to be an incredible game."

What was it like in the dressing room when Botham and Dilley were smashing it all over the place?

"Well, it was jocular. We'd given up all hope. We'd checked out of the hotel on the Monday morning, thinking that the game might be over and our careers might be over.

"It was almost comic entertainment. We didn't think that the result was going to change. Ian's innings was nothing like the quality of the Old Trafford century later in the series. He had an awful lot of luck.

"There was some pretty indifferent captaincy by Kim Hughes. If he'd have brought [left-arm spinner] Ray Bright on, Ian might have hit a few sixes but he'd have eventually hit one up in the air soon enough. But Hughes persisted with his seamers, who disappeared to all parts. Ian's first 50 runs were mostly thick edges and slogs. But after that it was pretty dramatic stuff."

When the 500-1 odds came up on the big screen, was anyone in the England dressing room tempted to take a flutter?

"I think Bob Taylor tried to have small investment on England. I can't remember who he asked to put the bet on, but they didn't do it. I think Godfrey Evans was the Ladbrokes adviser. Just like we won't see odds of 5000-1 on Hull City winning the Premier League after Leicester won with those odds, this year, I don't think odds of 500-1 have ever appeared in a cricket match since."

On the last day, when did England think they had a chance of winning the game?

"At the lunch interval. They'd got to 52 for 1 and then we picked up three wickets just before lunch. That's when the balance of power shifted. We had nothing to lose. A few of us were performing for our Test careers. I think if we'd have lost that game, it would have been the end for myself and probably several others in that side. There would have been a mass clear-out and that would have been that."

Willis didn't open the bowling. It was a decision by Brearley that rankled.

"Yes, it annoyed me. But it was a little bit like these days, swing was king, particularly at Headingley, and Mike wanted Botham and Dilley to try and swing the new ball. Beefy was a little bit weary after his exploits with the bat. But he picked up the first wicket, Graeme Wood.

"I changed ends from the Football Stand end to the Kirkstall Lane end. Mike said, just run in, forget about any no-ball problems and just bowl as quickly as you can. The pitch was playing tricks by then. There were some pretty nasty bounces from a good length."

After lunch, Australia never really looked like they were going to score those runs.

"I had the ability to take the second new ball at a quarter to six in the evening and turn in a performance"

"There wasn't too much front-foot play and the game stultified as far as run-scoring went. Dennis Lillee scored a few late on, improvising. He stepped away and hit my short-pitched deliveries over the slips.

"I got some great support from the bowlers at the other end. Chris Old, in particular, kept the runs down. They were stymied. We had brilliant fielders in front of the wicket - David Gower and a slightly more mobile Mike Gatting than the 2016 version. I won't say it was plain sailing, but some brilliant catches were taken and everything clicked into place. The pressure was on Australia and they collapsed under that pressure.

"Of course, there wasn't the sort of team ethic that there is now. After the game, Mike, Ian and myself were at an extended press conference. By the time we returned to the dressing room, all the other players had gone off down the motorways to play in the Gillette Cup second round the next day. There was no celebration of the win whatsoever.

"Australia were shell-shocked, but they were completely gone after they lost the next Test, at Edgbaston. Lightning struck twice. Another small run chase and that time it was Ian who bowled them out, a spell of five wickets for one run and they capitulated once again. They were a broken team after that.

"By Old Trafford, the balance of power had changed in the series, but even after that, the England selectors changed the side. The side changed every single game that series, whether we won, lost or drew. Both Graham Gooch and David Gower were dropped for the final Test at The Oval. No one felt very secure about their place.

"The Aussies weren't the same side as they'd been in the mid-'70s and again in 1979, when all their Packer players came back and thrashed us 3-0 in Australia.

"There was a fair amount of animosity in the Australian side in 1981. Rod Marsh and Lillee didn't get on with their captain at all. That discord filtered through the whole team. I remember Marsh changing the field when Kim Hughes had already set it. Marsh would put his hand up and move players around. They demonstrably indicated that they didn't think much of Kim's captaincy.

"It was a little bit of a hangover from World Series Cricket, with Hughes seen as an establishment figure. And clearly they [Lillee and Marsh] were major players in WSC. We weren't privy to that. And they were still playing for Australia and giving of their best, but a bit like the 1977 side, they were a divided camp.

"The 1977 Australian side was split down the middle too. Those who'd signed with Kerry Packer and those who weren't. Greg Chappell didn't come on the 1981 tour. Lillee wasn't there in 1977.

"Greg Chappell came back for the 1982-83 Ashes, in Australia, when I was captain. We'd lost 15 players, who were banned for going on the rebel South Africa tour. Australia were a totally different outfit to the 1981 team. Completely ruthless and much better than us."