Botham, Willis, Brearley, magic: let's cast our minds back to 1981

To be an up-and-coming English cricketer that summer was to get a glimpse of the stuff myths are made of

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Ian Botham (11 o'clock) celebrates after his 5 for 11 won England the 1981 Edgbaston Test  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Ian Botham (11 o'clock) celebrates after his 5 for 11 won England the 1981 Edgbaston Test  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Wednesday, July 29, 1981: Prince Charles marries Princess Diana. Thursday, July 30: play begins in the fourth Test of the 1981 Ashes - a series of matches as daft and dramatic as any played - the series known to this day as Botham's Ashes because of the gargantuan part Sir Ian played in further lifting the mood of the nation. Botham's nicknames were the stuff of legend: Beefy, Beefcake, Monster, and Guy the Gorilla foremost among them. The stakes are a little higher now. Late last year he was appointed by the prime minister to the House of Lord's for his support of Brexit among other things, so we know him as Lord Botham of Ravensworth. Or, as the lads like to say, the Baron of Beef.
Come those heady days of late July 1981, the score in the five-match series was 1-1 after England had drawn level in extraordinary circumstances at Headingley about ten days earlier.
On the first Sunday of that August, Hampshire were playing a Sunday League game against Kent at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. The dressing rooms were alongside each other back then but only the home dressing room had a television. I poked my head into the open door and changing right there, under the telly, was Alan Knott, the great wicketkeeper.
"What's the score?" I asked. "Not good, still three down." I groaned. "Don't worry," Knott added with typical enthusiasm and a bright smile, "the Gorilla will come on in a minute and take five for none."
Which was pretty much exactly what he did.
In a match that echoed some of the random cricket played at Headingley by both teams, the Australians had done enough at Edgbaston to leave themselves just 151 to win in the fourth innings. But 151 was 21 more than they had needed in Leeds, and though Mike Brearley, the England captain, doubted lightning would strike twice, he was encouraged by a nervous start from the Australian top order on Saturday evening.
At lunch in Birmingham on Sunday, the score had crept to 67 for 3. In Canterbury, Kent chose to bat first and as we left our dressing room for the field of play, the fourth Australian wicket fell - Graham Yallop a victim of the wily John Emburey. Then Emburey had Allan Border caught at silly point from a brute of a delivery.
Upon which Brearley threw the ball to Botham, who had been strangely reluctant to bowl. He took 5 for 1.
The match was over before the beer queues had woken up to the fact it was even alive again. In the field in Canterbury, we heard six reactions from the spectators whose radios were tuned in to Edgbaston.
The first, Border's wicket, was the sort of titter that comes from an embarrassed giggle and says, "Phew, at least we won't be humiliated." The second, the uprooting of Rodney Marsh's middle stump, was louder and almost feral, partly because it was Marsh, the archetypal Australian, whose bet against his own team during the Headingley Test - more of that in a moment - had caused something of a stir.
The next reaction was different: it had the men and women of Kent out of their chairs and sharing the detail of Ray Bright's first-baller, lbw to the Gorilla - whisper, whisper, murmur, murmur; surely not. This had nothing on the roar that followed 20 minutes later: arch-villain Dennis Lillee well caught at the wicket by Bob Taylor after a defiant 19-ball innings of 3 in a partnership of 6 with Martin Kent, which, from afar, seemed to be turning back the tide. That Lillee wicket provoked a guttural roar, a bloodthirst, and was the moment when Kentish folk came together with Hampshire fielders to agree that the possibility of a miracle had become the probability of a victory.
Briefly, none of us gave a stuff about Kent versus Hampshire, only Botham versus the Aussies.
Sensing the country alongside him, the Gorilla then ripped one through the game defences of Kent and triumphantly knocked over Terry Alderman with another very fast, full and straight ball. It was over. He ran, right fist in the air, to claim a stump and a famous victory. Indeed, he might have been Caesar returning to the Colosseum for his triumph, so ecstatic were the people.
If Charles and Diana had stoked the fires of national fervour, ignited by victory in the third Test, Botham had lit them in the first place in that game and was now fanning the flames at Edgbaston.
This brought the most unlikely and visceral reaction from the bleachers in Canterbury. Our match came to a brief halt as the news sank in, whereupon an extraordinary communal feeling of euphoria spread around the ground. Yes, the garden of England had become momentarily triumphalist itself before getting a grip and returning to the polite applause given to boundaries struck in the more sedate environment of the Sunday League. The facts still being digested by all of us were that Brearley's team had won back-to-back Test matches from nowhere.
And by nowhere, I mean nowhere.
That a Cowdrey was making a few against Hampshire was irrelevant. England were 2-1 up in a series that only a few weeks previously had offered no hope. Of course, Edgbaston was not the story; that was at Headingley a fortnight earlier, and what a story. But Edgbaston underlined the movement on the dial.
The 40th anniversary of Headingley '81 - a Test that began on 16th July - is, of course, today. In the Times of London last week, Michael Atherton wrote a superb piece about the match and its surrounding events and players. It was accompanied by contemporary black-and-white photographs of them all, except Knott, who lives in Cyprus. They are dressed in black T-shirts and have been asked by Phil Brown, the photographer, to reflect rather than rejoice. These pictures are both a stark and evocative reminder of the passage of time and its effects on a man. We remember these cricketers as heroes and see them now as a part of our history.
Bob Willis is missing, and of course, missed, in a way his own self-deprecation could barely believe. It was rather special that the "Blue for Bob" day at Edgbaston last Tuesday went so well and that a huge amount of money was made for research into prostate cancer.
Bob Woolmer and Graham Dilley are missing too, men lost to the unpredictable cycle of life and death.
It is worth spending a moment on the transformative powers of Botham in his playing pomp. He was more than just a cricketer; more, indeed, than a man of the people, as he has been called so often. By throwing caution to the wind at every turn he single-handedly created hope for a whole nation in a way that few sportsmen have done.
Seve Ballesteros - at his best - and Viv Richards are two others but it is a short list.
Botham tore at the opposition, not always coming out on top, of course, but always telling them he was around. He laughed in the face of doubt and paid little attention to the weight of public expectation. He saw every game as an opportunity - nothing less, nothing more. He might not be the greatest of the allrounders to stand for that title but he might well be the greatest out and out match-winner. (Eighteen months earlier he had made a hundred and taken 13 wickets in the one-off Golden Jubilee Test against India in Mumbai.)
In the Times portrait, Botham looks good, less lined than one might think and still strong. In fact, after a second glance just now, he is surprisingly undiminished and it is easy to imagine that on impassioned issues such as the countryside, woke culture and sovereignty, he is a force in the second chamber.
Back in 1981, briefly, he was sour at the game, having lost the England captaincy after a thumping in the West Indies and a bad start to the Ashes in the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord's. With England one down, the selectors turned to Brearley, who knew Botham better than most, having been his first Test captain. They got on well and Botham tended to perform for Brearley in a way that he might not have done for others.
In its way, the Headingley win was a fluke but the notion that the best captains and players make their own luck has some truth to it. Botham batted in the second innings as if he were on the village green and in a hurry for his first pint (he had made a lively 50 in the first innings but with a little more culture). There was no sign of any magic from Brearley when England followed on 227 behind and found themselves 135 for 7 - and all but gone - when Dilley joined Botham at the crease. Dilley made 56, playing a relatively straight bat to Botham's uninhibited form of expressionism. They were lucky. Any edged boundary - and there were plenty - might have gone to hand on another day. From the dressing-room balcony, an animated Brearley encouraged them to keep going as they were.
I remember watching this partnership from the café underneath the Hampshire dressing room in Portsmouth, where I was nursing a broken finger courtesy Sylvester Clarke the day before. The longer the pair of them went on, and especially after England got in front, the more I shouted at the screen for them to rein in and take stock. My entirely misguided view was that they now had the Aussies by the proverbials and should grind out a bigger lead. Seeing Brearley egg them on taught me more about leadership in a single moment than in any other during my career as a cricketer.
(I also remember Richie Benaud's terrific commentary that day, and specifically, his sense of theatre when Botham hit a six into a little hut selling sweets and stuff - "Don't even bother looking for that, it's gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again." I also learnt from this, realising that capturing the moment was more important than making perfect sense. As Richie would later say over a beer, "The ball rebounded onto the concourse, everyone knew where it was!")
Botham finished unbeaten on 149 from 148 balls, dynamic by Test match standards of the time. Australia needed 130 in the last innings to win the match. Easy. So much so that Lillee and Marsh were unable to resist what Lillee called "the ridiculous odds offered for a two-horse race". With Dilley walking out to bat, the odds hit 500-1 against an England win. Lillee asked the Australian team's coach driver to put on a tenner and Marsh called him back to add a fiver of his own. A few days later, £7500 was delivered in cash to Worcester and landed on the tourists' dressing-room table. "It looked like a million dollars!" Border recalled.
There was never a suggestion of impropriety, only the daftness of the odds exciting a couple of young blokes who could see the main chance. Of course, it turned embarrassing for those two wonderful cricketers but nothing more. As Lillee points out, "The odds quickly disappeared after Beefy's amazing innings, and with our score at 56 for 1 in the run chase, we had the champagne ready for celebration with the bet already forgotten. I'd have swapped every penny for a win. Simple as that."
For all Botham's fireworks with the bat, it was Willis who cleaned up the game and there is a story there too. Concerned about his form and fitness, the selectors left Willis out of the side. Then they heard he had suffered from the flu at Lord's but was well again, so he was added to the extended party of players for the match. Such science! On the way to the ground, Brearley asked him about the balance of the team. "Four seamers" was the reply, which included Bob himself. He insisted on bowling up the slope to counter his frustrating no-ball problem. Only when Brearley switched him to bowl down the hill on that amazing final afternoon did the tide turn in his favour.
"Give him his head, switch him round," said Taylor. "Tell him to bowl straight at Lillee, any length, and forget about no-balls," said Mike Gatting. Bingo! After Willis' breathtaking six-wicket burst, Lillee and Bright made 30-odd for the ninth wicket in four overs and seemed to be racing home. Gatt's advice did the trick, Lillee immediately chipping a full, straight ball to the tumbling Gatting, who held on at mid-on.
Finally, Robert George Dylan Willis, with his demonic eye and trance-like demeanour, blew Bright's middle stump out of the ground with a perfect yorker and ran from the field as if lost on another planet, with 8 for 43. These were simple twists of fate and because of them, the times they were a-changing. (I know, but why not. This was the music that Bobby lived for and the music that made him forever young.)
I remember most of this as if it were yesterday, when I was starting out on a career in the game and watched and listened with something close to an addiction. At one time or another I played against all of those who took part in the series and on every occasion, I would think back to these two matches - and the fifth Test at Old Trafford too, in which Botham played his finest innings - when our hearts and minds were captured and held all summer long by a group of cricketers and their incomparable talisman. Sure, England had two captains, three wicketkeepers (??) and 20 players, so it was not a perfect world. But to a young wannabe, it was close.
I will leave the last word to Brearley. "I was the luckiest man that summer. If I haven't dined out on it, I've become, for better or worse, along with Botham, Willis and others, part of the mythology. It's not easy to sort myth from reality." Amen to that. Which is why our dreams live on.

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