The great escape

The epic Headingley Test of 1981 recreated

Christopher Martin-Jenkins
Jubilant England fans throng the field after the win  •  PA Photos

Jubilant England fans throng the field after the win  •  PA Photos

Ian Botham, magically transformed in his first match away from a captaincy which had weighed more heavily than Frodo's ring, stole the Third Test from Australia in two hours of thunderous driving. Coming in at 105 for 5, with England still 122 behind, his brilliance, bravado and, in Kim Hughes's words, his `brute strength', gave England's bowlers 129 runs to play with. At 56 for one their cause seemed hopeless but Bob Willis took eight of the last nine wickets, Mike Gatting and Graham Dilley held crucial catches and the daylight robbery was completed amidst national rejoicing.
Only once before had a Test been won by a side following on; England again at Sydney in 1894 when Australia's captain George Giffen had an even more remarkable match than Botham this time, bowling 118 six-ball overs for a return of eight for 239 and making 161 and 41. But the speed with which the match at Headingley was turned upside down made it unique; something one expects to witness only once in a lifetime.
In the end, Mike Brearley's return as captain was triumphant. He gave Botham a much longer first innings spell than the former captain would have given himself and, in the tense final stages, he kept the right balance between attack and defence. His opposite number, Kim Hughes, was admirably gracious and generous in defeat. For three and a half days his team had out-played England and the Ashes were as good as regained. Defeat must have seemed like a sudden, unexpected bereavement. For England it was the first win in 13 Tests, ending a spell equal to the most barren in their history. It was the first time Peter Willey had finished on the winning side in 19 Tests, the first in 12 for Graham Dilley. At tea-time on the Saturday Ladbrokes offered odds of 500 to one against an England victory.

First day

Over the last three years 57 per cent of play has been lost to bad weather in Headingley Tests. It was no surprise, there-fore, that the first day of the 1981 Test should have coincided with the first rain in Leeds for three weeks. Apart from the obvious frustrations, these delays for rain disrupt the natural rhythms of a day's cricket and they helped to make the opening day of the game seem thoroughly mundane.
Australia, however, had every reason to be pleased with their position. With the extra hour hauling back some lost time, five hours and ten minutes were played in all and 82 overs bowled. On a dry pitch the ball bounced unevenly, and deviated for England's lone spinner as well as for the four seam bowlers with which the team was unbalanced. In the circumstances John Dyson's first Test hundred was a triumph of character and concentration. It was also a feather in the cap of Australia's selectors who, in the absence of the injured Laird, had stuck by him despite the fact that he had not got to 50 since his first Test innings at Perth in 1977. Dyson's staunch front-foot technique has served him well in England.
After Hughes had named an unchanged side and won an important toss, it took a conference before he announced the intention of batting. It was overcast and the ball did swing, but Wood played a brilliant little innings, either leaving the ball late or playing it firmly, until Botham had him lbw with an inswinger, the third ball he had bowled. He might have followed this up more decisively, if Gower at third slip had been able to catch Chappell off the outside edge when he had scored only three. When Chappell had added four more, Botham himself put down a more simple chance off Willis. Nothing takes the steam out of a howler more than a dropped chance; nothing encourages a batsman more than an undeserved extra life.
Chappell and Dyson were desperately pedestrian in a colourless afternoon session after the rain. After tea (97 for one off 42 overs) Dyson, however, began to time some crisp strokes off the hack foot. Willey, who had come on as early as the 38th over and who would have greatly benefited from having Emburey or Underwood at the other end, had Chappell caught behind as he shaped to force off the back foot but Hughes settled in to see Dyson, now thoroughly set and putting away the loose ball efficiently across the dry, fast outfield, make his way to a worthy hundred with 14 fours. It would he a surprise if Dyson gets many more Test hundreds but by the time that he hit across a swinging ball of full length from Dilley, Australia were halfway to an unassailable position. Dyson escaped one hard chance in the gully when 57.
CLOSE OF PLAY: AUSTRALIA 203 for 3 off 82 overs. Hughes 24, Bright 1.

Willis: mean, moody, magnificent © Stamp Publicity (Worthing) Ltd

Second day

There was a little more character to Friday's play, especially in the latter half of a day again cut short by 50 minutes because of showers. Botham, free from the shackles of leadership, bowled a leonine spell of 22.2 overs broken only by the tea interval, taking five wickets for 48. It was the first time he had taken five wickets in an innings since the Test before he had been made captain.
Hughes and Yallop provided the substance of the Australian batting, but it was a bit doughy and Hughes was not at his brilliant best, needing much luck to survive some fine bowling by Willis. Old, too was unlucky but Hughes and Yallop grafted on, knowing that on this pitch anything above 200 was a good total. Twice that score was not far short of miraculous. The unpalatable facts were that England's bowlers were too often off line (Dilley all over the place, Willis and Old a little too far to the off) that Hughes was dropped off a sitter by Gooch at first slip when 66, and that had Australia's fast bowlers been bowling to their own batsmen the eventual 401 for nine would have been about 200 all out. Hughes and Yallop had added 112 in 160 minutes when Botham broke through. Hughes played such memorable shots as there were, mainly through the covers, although Marsh also hit some very good ones during another extended evening session.
England had to face two overs before the close and Alderman wrote upon the wall with an astounding delivery which pitched middle-and-off and would have decapitated first slip if Marsh's right glove had not intervened.
England 7 for 0

Botham smotes a four over the wicketkeeper's head © Getty Images

Third day

Until the weather again intervened this was a good day's cricket, one-sided though it was. Lillee, Lawson and Alderman made embarrassingly better use of the uneven bounce of the pitch than England's four and only a heroic counter-attack by Botham gave England a chance of saving the follow-on. Lillee had him caught behind to give Marsh his 264th Test victim, breaking the record and making certain that England would have to hat again.
England were 78 for three at lunch and all out by tea. After Gooch had been lbw, the key wicket was Boycott's: determined not to he late in line against Lawson, as he had been at Lord's, he ironically and a little unluckily got too far across and was bowled leg-stump. Lawson took another vital wicket, Gower's, with a vicious rearing ball and a brilliant overhead Marsh catch after he had seen Gower dropped at fourth slip the ball before. Gatting was also dropped. at first slip off Lillee but he was leg before as he so often seems to he. Botham's 50 came off only 50 halls, which took 75 minutes to howl. Had Percy Fender received balls at such a slow rate his famous century at Northampton would have taken not 35 minutes but 126. He hit eight fours, magnificent shots all. Once he skied over extra-cover: if the Gods had not returned their favours he would probably have been caught. As it was it took an almost unplayable and an historic catch to end his innings and, in effect, England's. Of Marsh's record 264. Lillee had accounted for 74. Off Alec Bedser, Godfrey Evans caught 24, stumped two. Any other challengers?
That England lost only one more wicket when their second innings began a little before five o'clock was due to very had light, which brought the players off and then the indulgence of the umpires who decided at five to six instead of at six, the correct time for the decision, that conditions were not tit for the extra hour to he played. Get the light had already improved and within minutes the sun was shining. It is true that the regulations were inflexible but the anger of the Australian players and of the spectators was justified. In future, by agreement of the two national hoards, play will be possible at any stage of the extra hour if conditions are fit.
CLOSE OF PLAY: ENGLAND 6 for 1, 221 runs behind.

'Crucially, Chris Old managed to keep the attack going' © Getty Images

Fourth day

The astounding turnabout in a momentous day's cricket began shortly before tea when Bob Taylor was caught off a glove at short-leg to make England 135 for seven, still 92 runs behind. By tea, Botham and Dilley had taken the score to 176 for seven. Between tea and the close at six o'clock Botham added a further 106 off his own bat out of the 175 runs added in 27 overs. John Woodcock rightly compared his spectacular piece of controlled hitting to Gilbert Jessop; Peter West remarked that it was as if the village blacksmith had taken charge of a Test match.
Botham himself, launching his six-teen stone frame towards the ball with joyous abandon, just smiled his way through one of the most amazing innings of all time. Murderous drives and square cuts brought him 19 fours in his personal century, reached off 87 balls: he also stepped three paces down the pitch to drive the fast-medium Alderman straight for six.
The first part of the day had followed a predictable course with Alderman and Lillee working their way steadily through the determined English batting on this pitch of unpredictable bounce. Geoff Boycott played a brilliant defensive innings, making 35 not out before lunch without a semblance of an error. Both he and Gatting were a trifle unlucky. perhaps, not to he given the benefit of the doubt about whether balls from Alderman would have hit their leg-stump. Alderman and Border both held good slip catches and when Willey, who punished Lawson for any errors of length, added 64 with Boycott for the fifth wicket, he was out to a clever piece of tactical thinking by Hughes, who placed a short third man, and Lillee, who directed a bouncer perfectly. Willey sliced his cut unerringly to the waiting trap. It was Lillee's 142nd wicket against England, surpassing the off-spinner Hugh Trumble. (Wilfred Rhodes, with a mere 109. took more than any other Englishman against Australia.) Australia's progress seemed inexorable when Dilley, strode out, determined to continue his successful policy of driving hard at anything outside his off-stump. The very fast outfield was in favour of the attacking batsman throughout the game and, for a time, Dilley outscored Botham with a series of rasping off and cover drives. He never seemed to move his feet - nor. very often, did Botham - but luck had changed sides with a vengeance and both players seemed either to middle the ball or to miss it altogether.
Too quickly, perhaps, Hughes took away some of his close fielders, but the gaps were still pierced. Bright, the sole spinner, was not given a howl until late in the day when England, improbably, were ahead.
Undoubtedly he should have been, but who can blame Hughes for thinking, like everyone else, that the mayhem could not continue for much longer? Dilley hit nine fours in his stand of 117 in 80 minutes for the eighth wicket. Crucially, Chris Old man-aged to keep the attack going, although he showed no more inclination than normal to move into the correct line. He has always been a fine striker of the hall and he added a further 67 with the hero before he was yorked by Lawson. England's lead was still under 100 when Willis strode out, but with Botham hitting commanding fours and then collecting a single off the last ball of most overs, the advantage was 124 when stumps were drawn. Botham was 145 not out; he had collected 26 fours in addition to his six and in the heady euphoria of the moment it seemed possible that England really could win.
CLOSE OF PLAY: ENGLAND 351 for 9, 124 runs ahead.

Bob Willis was inspired © Getty Images

Fifth day

A searing cover-drive for four by Botham and a single to Willis were the only additions to England's lead before Willis edged Alderman low to second slip.
Australia's innings began in sunny weather and Botham and Dilley, the batting heroes, were given the new ball by Brearley, ever the psychologist. In the third over of the innings Wood drove at Botham and was caught behind but Dyson, fortified by his first innings success, batted both resolutely and correctly as did Chappell. After Dilley had conceded 11 runs in two overs. Brearley gave Willis five overs into the breeze and up the hill and then brought on Willey, switching Willis to the Kirkstall Lane end at 48 for one.
With his Test career in doubt for the umpteenth time, Willis, of the big heart and vicious bounce, gave it everything he knew. Brushing aside the cost of regular no-balls, he bowled at fierce pace to a shorter length and a straighter line than in the first innings. And suddenly Australia's foundation crumbled. Chappell deflected a mean bouncer with his glove in front of his face; Hughes-a vital batsman - edged another lifter low to the left of third slip; and Gallop fended off to short-leg. where Gatting held a fine low catch. These wickets fell in the space of 11 halls from Willis and at lunch it was 58 for four, Dyson 29 not out.
With respect to Dyson, Border was now the key figure. Old, with his meticulous accuracy, had taken over from Willey before lunch into the breeze and at 65 Border went back to him, misjudged the bounce and played onto his stumps. "Three runs later Dyson shaped to repeat the cracking hook he had played off Willis in the previous over and this time went through with the stroke too early, gloving it to Taylor who, now 40 years old, jumped for joy like an excited seven-year-old on his birthday. His next catch gave him his 1271st first-class victim, breaking J. T. Murray's record.
Marsh now seemed the only serious danger to England. Having twice been rapped on the thigh, he hooked Willis off the top edge to a deep fine leg where Dilley judged the catch brilliantly, a yard in from the boundary rope. Had it been a six...
Lawson quickly touched Willis to the admirable Taylor but Lillee and Bright bravely reversed the surging tide. Bright hit two legside fours in one over from Old, Lillee two on the off-side off Willis. In four overs they added 35 and suddenly in this frantic match only 20 were needed by Australia. Willis had the sense, at this stage. to change his hitherto successful policy of bowling short and as soon as he did so Lillee spooned a ball towards mid-on. Gatting was slow to sight it but, just in time, ran in and held the hall low to the ground in both hands.
Alderman walked out with 20 still needed, and Brearley brought on Botham to give the match what he felt would be the appropriate finish.
Old missed Alderman twice in three balls at third slip, however, and it was the inspired Willis who knocked out Bright's middle-stump with a ball of full length to complete the victory that had saved a moribund series.
This article was first published in the Cricketer International