The heroics of Ian Botham in the Ashes summer of 1981 have gone down in cricket folklore. What tends to be forgotten is that the summer started terribly for him. In the first two Tests, his form was poor and his captaincy under constant fire. Sacked after the Lord's Test and on the verge of being dropped, he bounced back at Headingley to rescue a match that was all but lost, and in so doing turned the series on its head.
The win in Leeds brought England back into a series that had been slipping out of their grasp, and they headed to Edgbaston for the fourth Test of six all square with the Australians after a defeat at Trent Bridge and a draw at Lord's. The Ashes were very much up for grabs. Botham was still not back to his best and Mike Brearley, who replaced him as captain, recognised that despite his breathtaking hundred at Headingley, he was still out of sorts.
The England side still had problems after struggling for two Tests and three quarters of the third, although the selectors eventually decided to name the same 12 for Edgbaston. In the event, Graham Dilley withdrew from the side after throwing out his shoulder in a county match.
England travelled to Birmingham in a daze of euphoria, and the general mood in the country was jingoistically upbeat after the wedding of Charles and Diana on the eve of the match. Australia, by contrast, had had the stuffing knocked out of them after failing to chase down a small target for the second time in four Tests. In Leeds they fell short trying to make 130 after securing a first-innings lead of 227; five months earlier they had been bowled out for 83 when needing 143 against India after taking a first-innings lead of 182.
The pitch at Edgbaston was slow and low and runs were at a premium. England were bowled out for 189 in a little over two and a half sessions. It turned out that Brearley's 48 in the first innings was the highest score of the match - the only time he managed that feat in his 39 Tests.
Australia again took a lead, but not nearly as large as they would have expected midway through the second day when they were 203 for 5. They were undone by the spin of John Emburey, the one change from the Headingley XI, who took 4 for 43 to polish off the tail and restrict the Australian lead to 69.
Tempers flared on the second day, with Kim Hughes, Australia's captain, and Bob Willis clashing repeatedly. Hughes took exception to being fed a diet of short balls, and John Woodcock in the Times wrote he "began to behave in a strange manner, disregarding long singles, flexing his muscles like a boxer before the bell. Mounting words and indulging in facetious applause". Hughes edged the battle, scoring 47, while Willis was as wayward as he had been outstanding at Leeds, delivering a plethora of no-balls in his 0 for 63.
"I was the luckiest man that summer. If I haven't dined out on it, I've become, for better or for worse, along with Botham, Willis and others, part of the mythology"Mike Brearley
England fared little better second time round and were bowled out for 219 and Australia were set Australia 151. They closed the third day on 9 for 1.
The sun shone on the Sunday, usually a rest day but in this case the fourth day as part of an experiment to play right through without the then customary break after the third day. At least a late start - midday as opposed to the usual 11.30am - gave the players a lie-in.
Both captains had admitted on the Saturday evening that it was a better pitch than the scores suggested. Although England took two early wickets - Willis snaffling Hughes for 7 - Graham Yallop and Allan Border stopped the rot and guided Australia past the halfway mark with three wickets down. The crowd, inspired by memories of Headingley, and fuelled by beer, sun and patriotic fervour, roared the home side on regardless, and treated the introduction Willis and Botham into the attack as if the Ashes had been won.
Botham had had a subdued game. He had made 26 and 3 with the bat, out to two lacklustre shots, and taken 1 for 64 in Australia's first innings, his only wicket that of nightwatchman Ray Bright.
On the Sunday, Brearley opened with Willis and Chris Old before turning to the man he believed would be the key bowler on the turning pitch, Emburey. Botham was strangely reluctant to bowl, although he did send down some economical but wicketless overs before lunch.
As England were about to head out after the interval, the wicketkeeper, Bob Taylor, noticed Botham was putting on his Nike tennis shoes rather than his bowling boots. Brearley said, "What are you doing?" Botham replied: "You're all right captain, you don't want me to bowl." Brearley told him to get his bowling boots on.
"And he tried again," Taylor said, questioning whether Brearley really wanted him to bowl. "And Brearley's voice changed. 'Get your bowling boots on.' So he hurriedly had to get them on. A lesser captain would have ducked down to him and Beefy would have got away with it."
Willis continued for an hour into the afternoon before, exhausted, he was rested and Brearley asked Botham to bowl. By then Yallop had gone, but Border, despite suffering from stomach cramps, was doggedly pushing Australia towards their target.
Botham was still "strangely diffident" Brearley said, "and he felt that others should bowl before him". Botham suggested Peter Willey, who could bowl decent offspin, should come on, and umpire Dickie Bird jokingly agreed. "Best thing you can do is put on the twirlers so we can get off early."
Willey was warming up when Emburey removed Border, caught off the glove from a ball that lifted sharply off a length. Australia were 105 for 5 and still needed 46 to win. "Brears played one of his hunches and tossed me the ball," Botham said.
What followed was almost unbelievable. In 28 deliveries, Botham took the last five wickets for one run. Rod Marsh had his middle stump removed as he aimed through midwicket, and with the next ball Bright was leg-before to one that kept low. Dennis Lillee survived the hat-trick delivery - just - but fell soon after, caught in front of slip after some juggling by Taylor off a ball from Botham that might have been a wide. "I was trying to bowl an inswinger but it went the other way," Botham admitted.
Martin Kent was the only recognised batsman left and Brearley was happy to give him singles to allow the bowlers to attack Rodney Hogg. But Kent tried to clip Botham into a gap on the leg side and the ball brushed his pad and hit the off stump.
"With the sense of flair that makes him a great cricketer, he sensed his chance and grabbed it," Brearley wrote in his excellent account of the series, Phoenix From The Ashes. "Each time he took a wicket his arms reached up, his chest filled, waist drawn in."
It took Botham three more balls to polish off the match, the white-helmeted Terry Alderman beaten for pace and clean bowled. After a roar of delight, Botham grabbed a stump and sprinted off the field ahead of the onrushing crowd. His final spell was 5-4-1-5.
At 3.30pm, Australia had seemed on course to win the match. Within an hour England's players were standing on the balcony milking the adoration of the sunburnt fans. "There were as many Union Jacks as there were for the Prince and Princess when they made their bow," Woodcock wrote.
"He plucked that game from nowhere," Graham Gooch said. "He won it with sheer magnetism. He got into the Australians minds again."
"They didn't lose the game because I bowled brilliantly," Botham said. "They lost because they were mentally shot."
Brearley, reflecting in the Guardian 30 years later, said: "What won these two matches was, as much as anything, the sort of approach that would be understood by any village cricketer: let your arms go with the bat and hit the ball as hard as you can. Blacksmith cricket, one might say. And what better cricketing blacksmith was there than Botham? English cricket now had real heroes, with uninhibited and simple methods."
For those millions watching on TV, they had to wait to see what had happened, most listening with frustration and incredulity to Test Match Special on the radio as BBC TV switched to coverage of the British Motorcycling Grand Prix. By the time Sunday Grandstand returned to Edgbaston, the game was done and dusted.
Hughes was distraught. "We fell apart under pressure," he said. "I'll have to think how I can lift the team." As it turned out, he could not.
What happened next
- England, again inspired by Botham, who hit 118 off 102 deliveries, won the fifth Test at Old Trafford to secure the series 3-1, and in so doing retained the Ashes. The final Test at The Oval was drawn
- Botham won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award that December. The official BBC video of the summer's cricket was titled Botham's Ashes. He finished the series with 399 runs and 34 wickets.
- Mike Brearley retired as England captain at the end of the summer, bowing out with a half-century at The Oval.
- Kim Hughes, who had only led the side because of the unavailability of Greg Chappell, returned to being vice-captain under Chappell. He later resumed as captain but his tenure was not successful and culminated in his tearful resignation in 1984
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