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40 Years On: Headingley ‘81, The Greatest Sports Comeback

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40 years ago today, England and Australia headed to Leeds, West Yorkshire to play the third test match of the 1981 Ashes Series. What unfolded over the next five days stunned the cricket world, united a divided nation, and had Australia legend Richie Benaud claiming “one of the most fantastic victories ever known in test cricket history”.

Australia In Charge

Australia arrived in England for the 1981 Ashes series in a vengeful mood. England had won the 1978-79 series down under by a 5-1 margin, with Derek Randall and David Gower doing the damage with the bat while the spin of John Emburey and Geoff Miller had taken a combined 39 wickets.

The 1981 Australian team had a new captain in Kim Hughes and there was batting talent in Allan Border, who was on his first tour of England. The star turn, however, remained pace bowler Dennis Lillee, who had made himself a legend in the 74-75 Ashes. The pace attack was now augmented by newcomers Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson.

The hosts meanwhile had star players in batsmen Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, David Gower, and all-rounder Ian Botham. The England selectors had blundered by appointing Botham as captain. England had the stars, but played as a collection of individuals, which showed in the First Test at Trent Bridge. In a low-scoring match dominated by Lillee, they took a 5-46 lead in the second inning as Australia skittled England for a meagre 125; setting up a four wicket win.

At Lord’s for the Second Test, England made a better start, but conceded a first inning deficit. While under fire, Botham got out for a pair, greeted by silence from the Lord’s Pavilion as he trudged off. England did manage to declare on 265-8 thanks largely to 89 from Gower, setting Australia 232 to win, as the match ended in a draw. Australia were again the better side, with Lawson taking seven first inning wickets.

With England in crisis, Botham resigned as captain, and by all accounts was jumping before he was pushed. Everything was going wrong for Botham, as he had struggled for runs, wickets and even dropped catches.

The England selectors made a drastic call and brought back Mike Brearley as their skipper. Brearley was an average batsman, but a brilliant captain who would eventually become a respected psychoanalyst. His choice of later career would come as little surprise to those who played against him and he brought a different mood to the camp ahead of the third test.

500-1 Shot

Those hoping the change of captain would change England’s fortunes were soon to be disappointed. Australia piled on the runs with John Dyson hitting a century and Hughes making 89 as Australia declared on 401-9. England were again skittled this time for 174 with Lillee, Alderman and Lawson sharing the wickets. For England, one positive amid the gloom was Botham, who relieved of the captaincy hit 50. With a lead of 227, Hughes made the decision to enforce the follow on. England’s second inning went wrong from the start with Graham Gooch out to Lillee having faced just three balls towards the close on day three. The next day was a rest day, meaning the test resumed on Monday morning with Australia poised for victory and a 2-0 series lead.

No team had gone on to win a test match after following on for 80 years, and one bookmaker was so confident of the outcome and came up with an extraordinary offer. The latest odds flashed up on the Headingley scoreboard, as Ladbrokes were offering odds of 500/1 on an England win. Plenty of punters took the bet, including some in the Australia camp.

When the match resumed, the top order quickly collapsed, leaving England on 41-4. Geoff Boycott provided some resistance in tandem with Peter Willey, but when Willey went with the score still just 105-5, hope dimmed as Botham arrived at the crease. Soon afterwards, Boycott went for 46 and Bob Taylor quickly followed. England were still 92 short of making Australia bat again at 135-7. Nobody suspected it, but Botham was about to make himself a legend.

Bombastic Botham

Graham Dilley joined Botham at the crease with an innings defeat imminent. Botham starting hitting aggressive shots in the hope of going down guns blazing. Lillee and Alderman had taken all seven England second inning wickets, as Hughes kept Lillee and Alderman on in the hope of a quick victory. Botham kept up the onslaught, battering the ball to all corners of the ground. Hughes, however, made the crucial mistake of keeping his two pacemen on for too long. Had he put Ray Bright on, it’s almost certain Botham would have mistimed one for a simple catch.

Botham batted on, hitting the odd thick edge, which fortunately fell to safety, notably hitting Alderman for three successive fours. With Dilley providing support, England avoided the embarrassment of an innings defeat. Dilley finally went for 56, having combined with Botham for a stand of 117. Still, the lead was still a marginal 25 with just two wickets in hand.

Botham renewed the assault, joined now by Chris Old, who made a quick 29. Bob Willis was England’s last man in, keeping one end of the wicket tied up long enough for Botham to move on to 149. England finally were out for 356, as Botham got his 149 off just 148 balls, smashing an incredible 28 boundaries.

Willis Gets Angry

Even now, few expected an England victory. Australia were chasing just 130 runs to win. Botham did take the early wicket of Graeme Wood, but Australia still sailed to 56-1; just 74 runs short of the target. Pace bowler Bob Willis had initially not been selected for the match after a poor run of form, even now Brearley didn’t put him on straight away, with the tall bowler cutting a frustrated figure.

When given the chance from the Kirkstall Lane End, Willis bowled fast and straight to take down Trevor Chappell, Hughes and Graham Yallop. Chris Old got Border for a duck and Willis took Dyson’s wicket for 34, as suddenly Australia were 75-8.

Ray Bright and Lillee threatened to rekindle Australian hopes, as their ninth wicket stand plundered five boundaries in a partnership of 35, bringing the finishing line within sight. Willis wasn’t done, however, as he got Lillee for 17. With England leading by 18, he took the wicket of Bright to complete an extraordinary comeback, with Willis taking an incredible 8-43.

Lightning Strikes Twice

Headingley was surely a one-off in which Australia had dominated for three and a half days and then somehow lost. Onto the fourth test at Edgbaston and England again produced a slow start, eventually setting themselves up to 151 to win. Australia moved cautiously to 105-4, needing just 46 to win. With an Australia win imminent Brearley threw the ball to Botham who produced an inspired spell of hostile bowling to remove Rod Marsh, Bright, Martin Kent and Lillee in quick succession. He completed another stunning win with Alderman’s wicket to finish with bowling figures of 5-11. Incredibly England had taken the series lead.

Australia were now a broken team, with the fault lines and lack of support for Hughes showing visibly. England had their number throughout the fifth test at Old Trafford, as Botham hit an inspired 118 in the second innings to set up a 103 run victory and take an unassailable 3-1 lead. England had retained The Ashes and Botham had become Australia’s bogeyman. For a brief moment, a country riddled with bitter division and economical upheaval was united.

The Legacy

Botham was be the dominant figure of The Ashes in the 1980s. He was below par in the 82-83 series, but eventually struck again. This time in Melbourne, with the dramatic final wicket in England’s epic three-run win, Australia recovered for a 2-1 series win. For the ’85 series, Border was named as the Australian captain, but he lead another fractious divided team and Botham again starred in a comfortable England series win.

Border knew it was time for radical changes and eventually lead a turnaround in fortune. Matters became worse for Australia before they got better. Botham and the England team arrived for the 1986-87 tour dubbed by the media “Can’t bat!, Can’t bowl!, Can’t field!”. With that endorsement ringing in their ears, few expected much from England. However, at the Gabba, it was Botham again hitting 138 as England won the first test by seven wickets. Captained by Mike Gatting, England retained The Ashes with a match to spare.

The persistence of Border paid off later that year, with Australia winning their first Cricket World Cup, beating England in the final. His revolution was in full bloom in the summer of ’89 when Australia arrived in England for The Ashes. This time, England were in a mess with Border and Alderman leading Australia to their most dominant series win.

Border lead an era of Australian dominance not only of The Ashes, but Test Cricket. They took over the top world ranking from the West Indies. Botham never participated again in The Ashes, but there was one last hurrah. At the 1992 World Cup, Botham took 31-4 as England beat hosts Australia en route to the Final. Border toured England one more time for the ’93 Ashes. England had made a promising start when Border threw the ball to Shane Warne in which it took just one ball for Warne to make his mark and played on into history.

As Australia dominated, England struggled through the ’90s. Captain Mike Atherton later reflected on the fact that the lack of an all-rounder was his team’s biggest deficiency. When England finally regained The Ashes in 2005, the star player was Andrew Flintoff, an all-rounder in the Botham mould. Since then, The Ashes have largely swung to the home team. However, the most recent series saw Australia return again to Headingley, with an extraordinary England comeback inspired by Ben Stokes. For all the drama of Stokes’ 2019 comeback, Botham and ’81 remains the greater achievement for inspiring the most unlikely series comeback in cricket history.

Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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