Another one has gone: heroes all, but the class of '81 are four short now of the 20 who represented England in six Ashes Test matches that summer. Exactly 40 years after the series, which became so widely known as Botham's Ashes, Mike Hendrick has died of bowel and liver cancer. "Hendo" suffered awhile but never thought much of self-pity. His dry, midland wit remained intact to the end: "I'm in the departure lounge," he said to Mike Atherton a month or so ago, "but the flight hasn't left yet."

Atherton was talking to Hendrick for a fine piece in the Times that remembered and celebrated the men of that golden month in 1981 when England wrestled back consecutive Test matches from improbable positions and slam-dunked a third to secure the urn. Bob Willis, Graham Dilley and Bob Woolmer have already flown. Now the doors are closed and Hendrick is on his way to join them. He said to Atherton how players such as Geoffrey Boycott and David Gower stayed in touch throughout the period of his illness. "I have so many fond memories but rarely do they involve the wickets I took, more the team-mates and dressing rooms I played in. It was a special time."

At Willis' passing, Paul Allott was by his side. They held hands as Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" accompanied Willis from this life to the next. For his article Atherton spoke to most of the players, some of whom, like Hendrick, played bit parts; others, like Botham, stole the show. Mike Brearley was recalled after Botham was sacked from the captaincy, and Brearley worked his magic, which, in essence, was to get the mighty allrounder back on course. The affection they have for one another remains to this day. "It's curious isn't it," mused Brearley, "You go through something together. It's an arduous thing, a Test match or a Test series. It can be an anxious, nervous time and if it goes well, you experience great elation together. It's the sporting equivalent of falling in love in some ways. I see my old team-mates now and find we start making the same jokes from 40 years ago as if it were yesterday." Such bonds cannot be broken.

Hendrick played the first and last Tests of the series, thus missing the heady drama that captivated the nation. In the first Test, at Trent Bridge, he had Allan Border dropped by Paul Downton, and somehow both men then lost their places for it. The invitation for Hendrick to play again, which came from the Test and County Cricket Board and was posted to Derbyshire County Cricket Club - as was the tradition of the day - and intercepted by the Derbyshire secretary at the request of the chairman of selectors, who had changed his mind overnight upon hearing that Willis had recovered from illness. You'd call that unlucky.

As you would his bowling, which beat the bat more often that was reasonable. He bowled a perfect line and length at a strong, bouncy fast-medium pace and hit the seam with legendary consistency, often admitting that he didn't know which way it would go - "Which isn't a bad thing, because if I don't know, the batsman sure doesn't either!" The general view was that the endless jaffas he propelled at mystified opponents were a tad too short to find the edge of the bat. As each was gloved by Bob Taylor, Hendo's hangdog expression would lengthen with the shadows of the day.

On occasions he was unplayable, not least after he had left Derbyshire in 1981 to join Nottinghamshire. Clive Rice, the no-nonsense South African whose captaincy helped to secure the Championship title for Notts in the early 1980s, demanded green pitches at Trent Bridge so that his seam attack of Richard Hadlee, the Kevins Cooper and Saxelby, Rice himself and Hendo could do their worst. Hampshire were bowled out for 70 and 56 there in 1982: Hadlee took 7 for 25 in the first innings and Hendo 5 for 21 in the second. Between them, they took 15 for 81 the match, and really, I don't know how we made the 81. I do, though, remember the endless playing and missing, or should I say groping in the dark, which eventually became almost funny.

Hendo was born in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, in 1948 and encouraged to play cricket by his father, a fast bowler who worked for the inland revenue, and of whom it was said, "If he doesn't get you on Saturday afternoon, he will on Monday morning." Hendo was signed by Derby after leaving school and began a first-class career in 1969. The talent was plain for all to see, not least the selectors who had him on the plane to Australia for the winter of 1974-75, when Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee ran amok. "My pads were like a pair of Ryvitas," he famously said. "When I got out there, Thomson's first ball knocked my bat out of my hands! I was thinking: 'I've got a wife and kids at home. What am I doing?' After the second one, I went and shook his hand and said, 'Thanks for the game' and walked off."

He would tell us these stories after play in county games, for these were the days when the players of both sides met in the bar and chewed the cud. He was tremendous company - not a bad bone in that gangling six-foot-and-three-inch frame, only a deep love of the game that gave him a wonderful life. Botham would always say that 30% of his wickets were thanks to Hendo keeping it tight at the other end. He has a point.

A few days ago Botham had the chance to say his goodbyes along with several other team-mates from the glory days. Geoff Miller, Hendo's old Derby and England accomplice, organised lunch at a pub in Matlock and on the guest list were John Lever, John Emburey, Bob Taylor, Derek Randall, Sir Geoffrey and Lord Botham. There would have been some mickey-taking there: "Fancy two of us lads knighted and lorded!" Hendo looked well enough for one so near the end, longish grey hair neatly parted to one side, beard and spectacles giving him a schoolmasterly air. He was nothing of the sort, of course, just salt of the earth and sinew of the game.

Seven hundred and seventy first-class wickets at 20.5 apiece. That's good graft by anyone's standard. Hendo might nearly have won England the 1979 World Cup, you know, but the umpire disagreed. He nipped one back to Viv Richards first ball and trapped him "In front of all three". Not out, came the response to England's exhortation. Richards made 138. Game over. As it is now for Mike Hendrick, a cricketer's cricketer if ever there was one.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator