The subject of substitute fielders has attracted considerable comment in recent years, and now it seems the ICC is set to clamp down on the almost relentless comings and goings as fielders leave the middle almost at will. But it's not a new problem, and in the Ashes series of 1981 it was the pet subject of the English media - before Ian Botham took centre stage and all else become secondary.

The man at the eye of the storm was Dennis Lillee, although for once he seemed to be the innocent party in the furore.

Lillee and Rod Marsh had missed the warm-up matches in Sri Lanka which preceded the England series in a bid to get into shape, and as Lillee later recalled, he arrived fitter than at any time in his career. But the first fortnight after the Australians landed in England was cold and damp, and Lillee contracted a serious bout of pneumonia which landed in him in hospital for a fortnight. He lost a stone in weight, and never regained full fitness for the rest of the tour. The illness left him weak and lethargic, and he was not helped by being on antibiotics for most of the trip.

Although he was back in harness in time for the first ODI on June 4, he was clearly not right. "I found after my initial spell I'd feel really good, and then I'd run out of gas," he explained. "To overcome this, I'd go a little easier in the first spell and this would enable me to carry through at a fairly steady work-rate."

In the second ODI in Birmingham, Lillee came back at the death to steer Australia to a two-run win, but it left him "absolutely gone. I was a goner."

Although he was advised not to play in the first Test at Nottingham, he did, but he was urged not to allow himself to get a chill. As a result, he took to leaving the field at the end of his bowling spells to change his damp shirt and vest for clean, dry ones.

England lost the Test, and the media quickly turned on Lillee, accusing him of taking time out to have a shower and a sit-down. "They just didn't understand that I was lucky to be able to play, without having to endure accusations of cheating," he said. "I was really upset at the allegations." After the draw at Lord's, and the sacking of Botham as England captain, the media campaign grew.

Mike Brearley replaced Botham for the now famous Headingley Test. Privately, he was concerned at the regularity and length of Lillee's absences, and he went as far as asking the English board to clarify the rules. While Botham had opted not to raise any complaints, Brearley and the board were uneasy.

It might have stayed a private matter, were it not for an article in the Sunday Express four days before the match, which claimed Brearley had written a letter of complaint to the Australians. The story was untrue, but Kim Hughes, Australia's captain, was contacted and he accused Brearley of "underhand and insulting" comments.

At the pre-match press conference, Brearley was immediately questioned about the matter, and after a few diplomatic responses he suddenly turned testy. "For me," he replied, "it's a different game if a fast bowler is allowed to go off when he feels like it." He later admitted that he "retaliated with a more vehement and clear-cut view than I actually held", and that was a gift for the tabloids. One led with the headline "Test war", and reported blazing rows between Brearley and Hughes.

Brearley then asked his players what their opinion was, and the consensus was that they would be wrong to make an issue out of it. "He thrives on the adrenalin-rush of a row," Geoff Boycott said of Lillee, and few felt that a break of five or ten minutes made any real difference.

The pragmatic Brearley pondered his options and admitted that there was little he could actually do even if he wanted to. "How would strong action affect us?" he reflected in Phoenix From The Ashes, his excellent account of that series. "If I happened to be batting when Lillee finished a spell, would I be able to concentrate fully if I took the controversial step of refusing to allow a substitute fielder?"

When Brearley and Hughes went out to toss at Leeds they briefly, and amicably, chatted, agreeing that bowlers would not go off to change more than necessary and that the time out should be minimal. That did much to defuse the row, but England's subsequent revival and three remarkable Tests ensured that the thorny matter of substitute fielders was forgotten ... for the moment.

  • The rules on substitute fielders were changed at the end of the season, with replacements only being allowed in case of injury or illness.
    Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

    Phoenix From The Ashes - Mike Brearley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
    Menace - Dennis Lillee (Headline, 2004)
    Wisden Cricket Monthly - Various
    The Cricketer - Various