Ian Botham went from being a brilliant all-rounder to global sporting star due his heroics at Headingley and the rest of the famous 1981 Ashes


Blowers did not give England a chance. Neither of us did. Even after Ian Botham’s exhilarating exhibition of hitting, an England win was inconceivable.

Henry Blofeld was kindly giving me a lift back to the hotel in Ilkley where most of the media were staying. Some England players had checked out of their hotel in central Leeds, but they had to return for that Monday night, to complete the formalities. England had one wicket left and were only 124 ahead; Australia were about to go 2-0 up, and even with three Tests to follow, there would be no Ashes.

I remember these events of 1981 as if they were yesterday. I was 27, cricket correspondent of The Observer and Scotsman; and life was simpler then, or this profession was. No action replays, no data, you just watched every ball.

Cricket was simpler too. To that point, 121 one-day internationals had been staged over 10 years since their official inception. The run-rate in them was less than four runs per over: if a country batted for 50 overs, they would not make 200. No power-hitting, no slog-sweeping; bowlers attacked and batsmen defended, not the other way round, as now. Test match batting was the only style in town, until Botham unleashed on that Monday afternoon.

I can see myself in Blowers’ car and the thought coming into my head that Botham’s 145 not out just might have opened up the possibility of a draw. If Bob Willis could hang around with him for an hour on the fifth morning, Australia would need at least three hours to knock the runs off, which would take us until tea, and if it rained then…. 

Ian Botham's hitting was unlike anything most fans had seen before


But no, we agreed the forecast was good and this was implausible. Hope had gone.

My memory fast-forwards to the next morning. What an optimistic idea that Willis could hang round for an hour: England were all out after Botham had hit one more boundary. Australia needed only 130 to win.

Now you may think the next move was unprofessional, and perhaps it was, but it was also a reflection of the prevailing mind-set in the press box and even in the England dressing-room, apart from the brain-cells of Michael Brearley. Australia had lost an early wicket in their second innings, but so what? Botham was exhausted after his magnificent hitting, and when he took the new ball straight afterwards, the magic had passed.

It was hitting too. After Botham had made his 118 in the fifth Test at Old Trafford, I said: “Headingley was hitting, Old Trafford was batting,” and with something more than a grunt he agreed.

So it was that a group left the press box to have lunch at one of those fish-and-chip shops for which Headingley was famous. Beef dripping; none of your vegetable oil in which fish and chips are made soggy down south. We left the ground after Australia had reached 50 for one, about 10 or 15 minutes before the interval, to beat the crowd (it was about 5,000 only: everybody had given up hope). Comfort eating, before writing up another England inquest.

In Kirkstall Lane we heard a roar, such as only occurs at the fall of a wicket, then another. Willis had switched ends, after pleading with Brearley to have the slope – and it was some slope before the square was levelled – for one last blast, to save the Ashes and his England career.

Once Bob Willis was unleashed down the hill he started to make inroads into the Australian batting lineup


What we had not factored in – the wisdom of hindsight – was the impact of Botham’s hitting on the Australians. They were disunited, but this had not been apparent when they won the first Test and drew the second at Lord’s, after which Botham had resigned as captain.

The rift was between the Australians who had signed for Kerry Packer – Australia’s best cricketers – and those who had “stayed loyal” to the Australian board ie the goody-goodies unwanted by World Series Cricket. From the latter clique, Kim Hughes was made captain; Greg Chappell, leading batsman of the first clique, refused to tour under him.

On that Monday afternoon Botham had opened up these fissures. There being so few one-day internationals before 1981, Hughes had no bank of knowledge of field-placings for when Botham unleashed; while Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson did not seem to listen to their captain at all. They bowled ever shorter and wider, the fault-line in the team became wider too, and the Australians unravelled.

We were back in our seats alright for the start of the afternoon session.

Except, as Willis powered down the slope, limbs flying everywhere, I found it impossible to sit, and kept pacing up and down the press box, which was not quite behind the arm, but at fine-leg, so when Marsh top-edged a hook at Willis the ball soared towards us before landing in the hands of the late Graham Dilley. 

Up and down, up and down. I recall thinking: will waiting outside the maternity ward be like this? (It turned out to be much easier, personally.) It was extreme jubilation at the fall of each wicket, until Australia had collapsed to 75 for eight. Now the expectation was England would win. Whereupon Lillee and Ray Bright counterattacked.

Everyone says it is less nerve-wracking to be involved in a close finish as a player than a spectator. On the basis of Headingley 1981 I would say it is even more nerve-wracking to be a spectator when you have some knowledge of, and sympathy with, the players and sense what they are going through, yet you cannot do a single thing to help.

England cricketers and journalists were effectively one party then, especially on tour. You drank together after a day’s play, which was not great for the players’ bodies but might have been for relieving their stress; and I was the same age as the players. Willis came to my first house-warming, Brearley to my wedding. That’s the way it was.

Hope had died, and revived, but now the game was back in the balance as Bright and Lillee slogged. As I knew, having studied cricket instead of A levels, only once before in more than a hundred years of Test cricket had any team won after following on – at Sydney in 1894-5, when Australia were set 177 to win and by the end of the fifth day had reached 113 for two.

On the Sunday – the rest day – of the Headingley Test, the England players had gone to Botham’s home for a consolatory barbecue. On the fifth evening in Sydney they got hammered, as the game was all but lost and rain flooded the ground. On hearing it was fit to play next day, they had to drag their lead spinner Bobby Peel out of bed and stick him under a shower. Peel sobered up in time to exploit the sticky wicket and England to win by 10 runs.

After Bright and Lillee had slogged 35 in only four overs, Brearley had the one clear head in Headingley. He told Willis, who had been banging the ball in at the batsmen’s ribs, to pitch fuller; and with 20 to win, he did, and Lillee chipped the ball towards mid-on.

At mid-on was Mike Gatting who, fortunately, had not had a large lunch of fish and chips. For a moment he did not appear to sight the ball – Headingley has dark backgrounds – but he dived forwards and caught it. Bright was then bowled middle stump by the wild mop of hair, and England had won by 18 runs. The Sydney victory had been achieved with the help of rain, but no such intervention on this occasion, unless you include Willis and Botham at their most inspired as natural phenomena.

Botham and Geoffrey Boycott rush off the pitch having miraculously beaten the Australians


Almost the whole nation seemed to celebrate. The Stock Exchange in London was reported to have been pandemonium. Euphoria was everywhere – except for a car on the M5.

Graham Gooch kindly gave me a lift to Bristol, where he was playing the next day, and told me that Marsh and Lillee had put money on England winning when the odds were 500-1 against. This was the age of innocence though: as old-school Aussies, they would bet on anything.

Gooch was far from euphoric. He was highly concerned about his England place: in the Headingley Test he had scored nought and two, unable to keep his pads out of the way of Alderman’s swing. He was dropped down the order for the next game, and out of the England side before the series end.

Outside this car, English cricket celebrated as never before – because Headingley was unique as a turnaround – and not quite the same ever since, because this was the first and therefore the most astonishing miracle.