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Why Headingley 1981 is a work of art

Unique and inimitable, it can be interpreted in multiple ways

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Geoff Boycott hands Ian Botham a stump and a tired Bob Willis waits for the presentation ceremony, England v Australia, 3rd Test, Headingley, 5th day, July 21, 1981

The days of their lives: Botham, Geoff Boycott, Bob Willis and others after the game  •  PA Photos

Forty years, and with each remembrance Headingley stands less as simply a Test match and more as art. A couple of weeks ago in the Times, Michael Atherton remembered it through the eyes of some of the surviving players and their memories of some of those who have passed, and as a work of recall and storytelling it was beautiful and elegiac, like a late-stage REM song.
It only enhances this idea, that Headingley is a work of art, frozen in the era in which it was played and resolutely of its time in a physical sense, but with meanings and implications melting forever forth from it, and alive still as an ideal to aspire to and admire; an epic contest that, though it shows one winner and one loser, cannot really be said to have produced either. It is Headingley and it is merely incidental that England won and Australia didn't. Works like that, as Headingley 2019 reminded us, don't come around often.
As with any piece of art, Headingley can be interpreted in multiple ways. We celebrate it, of course, and come together over it, but we also break it down. We ask what it means and what it says about its protagonists, and we respond equivocally, as we must; the artist needs an internal dogma - to believe their way and only their way is right - to produce their art, and the athlete something similar in their quest for greatness, but we, in understanding and appreciating it, we need doubt and a mind open enough to know that greatness comes in many shapes and forms; in some ways all great art and sport is the striving to narrow this schism between creator and audience. We recognise also in Headingley the time that produced it, ripe with racial tensions and a ravenous appetite for the personal affairs of the royal family and think, that's funny, has it really been 40 years?
Predominantly Headingley has been an Anglo-Australian possession, but as with all art, there is no possession. We just come to it differently and take what we want from it. The first I learnt of Headingley was through The Illustrated History of the Test Match, by Peter Arnold and Peter Wynne-Thomas, which described in some detail every Test series played from 1877 to 1987 (the book was published in 1988). It was a great gateway read, arranged by combinations of bilateral series in chronological order and dotted with brief biographies of great players.
It did not waste words, the hard brief clearly to keep it straight and dry: "The third Test at Headingley was one of the most extraordinary in the series and was a great personal triumph for Ian Botham." The statement is inarguable. It somewhat captures the magnitude of the event and whets the imagination. How great this Test must have been if even this big, green, official-looking book with a stiff upper lip was saying it.
I've never seen more than brief highlights of the Test, and that too only of the last couple of days. Is this also not how we do art, for which the viewer's presence at the time of its creation is unnecessary, and so too an experience of it in some original, un-pirated way? That is how powerful Headingley can be - how powerful it is - that it is clear instantly that it is unique and essentially inimitable.
Depending on the individual, different vantage points stand out from which to view Headingley. I'd already watched Graham Dilley bowl, for instance, on highlights recorded on video of Pakistan's 1987 tour of England. He looked a little like Boris Becker, my preferred sportsman of the time. Or maybe it was only the blond eyebrows, because Dilley moved with some rhythm and grace, and Becker moved like the Tin Man of Oz. In my mind all Dilley ever bowled were full outswingers, and he did it off a run-up that was so curved that until he bowled, he looked to be running in for the high jump.
Some, like Mike Brearley, were not so familiar, and because he had not remained a very public figure, he first formed as a mythical figure, and then as a glitch. How else to grapple with the idea that he was playing international cricket with the record that he had, let alone as captain? Captains captained by deed, like Imran Khan, and Brearley's batting average was not doing much.
It is said often now that such a cricketer cannot exist but how many such cricketers have ever existed (even if we acknowledge that he was in rich enough form to warrant a recall that summer for his batting)? Yet captaincy has rarely sat so lightly on one person as it did on Brearley, perhaps because it seemed to constitute so little of what he was and is as a man. That summer was his last as an international cricketer, an auteur-captain directing beautiful games in real time, without cuts or post-production edits and coming across ever so slightly like Woody Allen, only with more assurance and less nervous energy.
Terry Alderman took 42 wickets in that series, and nine at Headingley, which, as feats of lone and losing heroism go, may be low on a scale topped by the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, but probably nearabouts Brian Lara's 2001 series in Sri Lanka. Alderman was the oddest thing: an English fast bowler trapped in an Australian body. Australian fast bowlers were quick and mean, and the less quick they were, the meaner they got; Alderman's first name was Terence and he was a primary school teacher.
Subcontinental batters in Australia were doomed by the Bill Lawry soundtrack, "Edged and gone!" and then, suddenly for a bit in the '80s, Alderman was making them shuffle across and trapping them leg-before, like he was carrying a bit of the atmosphere and clouds of Headingley with him all around Australia. He was so unlike any Australian fast bowler that none of the breed's top 20 wicket-takers comes close to Alderman's percentage of career leg-before wickets; next best to his 34% (and a staggering 37% in Australia) is Jason Gillespie at 23%. Poor man, the trauma of Headingley was just Alderman's third Test.
And there was Botham (if the middle name is Terence, it's fine), the smile if this Test were da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Such a thought would've been outlandish to most Pakistanis during the mid-to-late '80s, when Botham was for them the very picture of the English Yob. That had begun with an equal-opportunity offensive quip in 1984 about Pakistan being so horrible a touring destination, one should only send their mother-in-law there, but it quietly escalated through that decade, culminating in a lost libel case against Imran in the mid-'90s. Not helping also was that during the second half of the '80s, Botham was an unapologetic bearer of the worst of that decade's style. Everyone had the mullet and the moustache but to bring with it that bellied strut - and the fact he was no longer as good as when he first began - made it grate that much more. This version of Botham, mid-appeal, is on the cover of the Illustrated History of the Test Match.
But in 1981 he cut a different figure, softer, less toxic, as in the more iconic photographs from the Test. As he exhales in that dressing room, readying the cigar, light and shadow tussling on his bearded face, the slightest sheen of perspiration and the tousled mop give him the appearance of a sailor decompressing after a long, arduous leg; or a world-wearied adventurer, which, it could be argued, he was. It's so intimate a photograph, you can smell it. He looks noble, humbler somehow, which makes sense because the summer until then, and the year preceding it, had been a humbling time. Captaincy had become the kryptonite to his game. And perhaps some of the introspection of this photograph was born of the toll of Ken Barrington's sudden death not four months before, on a tour of the Caribbean. Botham, captain then, and Barrington, a manager, got on well, and the former was understandably shaken up by it.
The other is on the balcony after the Test, notable in the way similarly premised royal photographs are. In colour versions, a golden glow emanates from Botham, the centre of this solar system. Over his right shoulder, on the field below, are his people, and as Botham poses for photographs, moments after his greatest triumph, he can't help but look royal. But only in the way that to look royal is to look awkward around normal people, as if unconvinced that such an arbitrary concept as royalty should merit adulation.
In Botham's career, 1981 is the sun at noon. The next summer, his beard vanished and the mullet was sprouting, a case of the butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. He would battle Imran for the primacy of allrounders and lose. It was a great series that feels now not as old as 1981, perhaps because of the overhead gloom in which its highlights perpetually play out. Visually and stylistically, 1981 was that much beloved decade, the '70s throwing a tantrum and simply not letting go. Nineteen eighty-one is of a piece with the 1976 visit to England by West Indies, when the sun stayed out all day and up all night. Have any nation's greatest days so hinged on the sun as that of Britain?

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo