On the cricket field, Headingley 1981 stands above all other English victories from the 20th century. It is remembered as a sporting Agincourt. And yet, through its very fame, Headingley’s legend has overshadowed the matches that came after.

In fact, England won not one Test in that series but three, hammering Australian morale into increasingly tiny pieces. And Ian Botham was named Man of the Match three successive times – a feat that only Mike Hussey and Muttiah Muralitharan have equalled in Tests.

Was Headingley even the best of the bunch? Nobody can deny its dramatic power. But Botham scoffs at the idea that his series-turning 149 not out at Headingley was his finest moment. Inspirational as it was, this was an educated slog – a knock he would later describe as a “crazy, glorious, one-off fluke”. Of his efforts with the bat in 1981, Botham prefers his chanceless 118 in the fifth Test at Old Trafford, which prompted one newspaper headline to enquire “Was Botham’s innings the greatest ever?”

It was with the ball, though, that Botham really established England’s grip on the urn. On the fourth day of the fourth Test at Edgbaston, he detonated Australia’s batting with a miraculous five-over spell. The match finished with him clean-bowling hapless tailender Terry Alderman and then rampaging off the field, holding one stump aloft like a bearded Statue of Liberty.

Botham started the 81 Ashes series as captain… but ended it as the hero with bat and ball

Credit: PA Archive

“How often are you going to take five for one in your career?” Botham tells the Telegraph. “I certainly never did it again. And I didn’t expect to. It was just something that happened.”

The Edgbaston Test began nine days after Bob Willis’s eight for 43 had completed the great Headingley escape. Once Ray Bright’s stumps had been scattered, the Australians retreated to their base – the Post House Hotel in the nearby village of Bramhope – in a desolate state.

“I remember speaking to Kim Hughes [the captain] when they got off the bus,” says John Coomber, a reporter for Australian Associated Press. “He said that he felt like a zombie, couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Even so, the prevailing wisdom was that it was a one-off, a freak occurrence that would never happen again, and that’s certainly what I thought. I didn’t give enough credence to the notion of momentum.”

Zooming out from the cricket, this wasn’t a happy summer to be English. The No.1 song that week was The Specials’ Ghost Town, an ominous warning about disenfranchised youth, released amid widespread inner-city race riots. It was a period of economic recession and political strife – the first big bump on the road to the Thatcherite revolution. So a once-in-a-generation victory like Headingley came as a small but welcome boost.

Geoff Lawson – then a 23-year-old fast bowler making his first trip to Britain – recalls the stock market ticking up every time England won a Test.

At least the Aussies were able to escape to the country afterwards, even if Lawson remembers “two people sharing rooms which fit about half a person” at Worcester. They collected a comprehensive win in their three-day match at New Road, then arrived in Birmingham on July 29 – the same date as Prince Charles’s wedding to Diana Spencer. 

Looking back, Lawson feels that “equilibrium had mostly been restored” among the tourists. “A loss like Headingley is devastating to your soul, but we didn’t have time to get really messy about it,” he says. “We had been on top for two-and-a-half Tests before Botham went bananas. We still felt we could get back there at Edgbaston. It was only when the wickets started to fall on the fourth day that the damage began to show, and the slippery slope was just a bit sharper than it might have been otherwise.”

Match summery

‘Edgbaston isn’t called the bull-ring without good reason’

Up until this moment, it had been a series for pacemen and swingers. Apart from Willis’ feats, the Australian strike pairing of Alderman and Dennis Lillee had already collected 38 wickets between them. But the Edgbaston pitch was dry and abrasive – almost sub-continental – and the recalled England off-spinner John Emburey made an immediate impact.

“As a spinner in those days, you were used to playing a supporting role,” Emburey says. “But I picked up four wickets in the first innings, then [wicketkeeper] Bob Taylor and I shared a useful stand to make sure the Aussies would have to chase 150-odd. I was thinking, ‘Hang on, I could be on for a Man of the Match here.’ That was before Beefy came along.”

The irony about Botham’s fire-breathing spell was that he hadn’t wanted to bowl in the first place. While different people offer different accounts of how he finally came to take the ball – with Australia standing on 109 for five, only 42 short – they all mention the tennis shoes he insisted on wearing for much of the day. Here was an unsubtle signal, directed at his captain Mike Brearley.

“Ian didn’t think there was much in the pitch for him,” Emburey says. “He thought we should keep Chris Old on at one end, me at the other, and squeeze them with pressure.” But then, when Emburey dislodged the in-form Allan Border with a ball that spat from a length, Botham scented blood.  

“I looked at Brears and I trotted off, put my bowling boots on and bowled the next over,” he recalls. “It was a warm, dry summer, and suddenly the ball started reversing. We weren’t really sure what it was doing. We hadn’t seen much – if any – of that before. I was setting up to bowl an outswinger and it was dipping in at the last minute. And then I thought ‘Okay, let’s play around with this.’”

Ian Botham took five for one in that memorable five-over spell


Border’s dismissal had left Martin Kent to shepherd the tail. An elegant, upright batsman with a style reminiscent of his mentor Greg Chappell, Kent was playing his first official Test, even if he had already earned his spurs at Kerry Packer’s World Series.

At first, Kent was accompanied by wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, himself an experienced campaigner with three Test hundreds to his name. But Botham’s ninth ball, delivered from around the wicket, was straight and full. Marsh aimed a huge swing to leg and was comprehensively castled. “114 for six,” intoned the smooth-as-silk Richie Benaud on the BBC, “and the crowd has gone noisily berserk.”

According to Emburey, this was an understatement. As he puts it, “I have never been at a cricket match, anywhere in the world, with an atmosphere anything like it was at Edgbaston that afternoon.”

Botham agrees. “Edgbaston isn’t called the bull-ring for no reason. It reminds me of a Roman arena with gladiators. I looked at the crowd when I won the Man of the Match award, and said ‘This lot have got me three of those wickets.’ It was quite unique because you could almost hear a pin drop when I stood at the end of my run-up, but once I started, the crescendo just built up. It unnerved a few of the Aussies.”

It certainly unnerved Lawson, even though he had been ruled out of the match by a torn back ligament. “I couldn’t watch,” he said, “so I went to the park next door for a run. I was judging the progress of the game by the noise. And these were not good noises, as far as Australian cricket was concerned. When the wickets fell, you could hear it numerous blocks away.”

Australia’s slow left-armer Ray Bright was trapped on the crease by his first ball – one of those reverse-swinging induckers – before Lillee denied Botham a hat-trick. He and Kent then stuck it out for five cautious overs, adding only six runs, before Lillee lost patience and went swishing at a wide one. Behind the stumps, Taylor juggled a fine edge before hanging on at the second attempt. The score was now 120 for eight.

“All I wanted to do was retain the strike,” Kent said. “I was more an offside player than anything. But mid-on was back, so I played across the line, trying to force one down there for a single.” Instead, he heard the death rattle as Botham’s inswinger clattered his off stump. Alderman survived only two balls before another fast yorker zipped through his feeble defences and the game was over.

Back in the dressing-room, Kent slumped in despair. “History says that I stuffed it up,” he says. “You have to cop it on the chin. Don Oslear [the umpire] came into the dressing-room with a stump and presented it to me, because it was my debut Test, but I couldn’t accept it because I was so devastated. I do regret that now.”

‘I should have said no to the captaincy’

The overall collapse – including Border’s dismissal – added up to six wickets for 16. With the Ashes on the line, this was a spectacular implosion; one that would be talked about more if it had not followed on from Headingley, the ultimate noisy neighbour.

But while that previous match felt like an Act of God, this was more of an old-fashioned choke.“When you’re chasing a small total,” says Botham, “someone needs to take the bull by the horns and have a go. But they were a bit like startled rabbits. There was no boundary threat, and that played into our hands. Maybe it was a legacy of what had happened in the previous Test. They were thinking ‘Another small total … let’s not cock this up.’ And consequently it didn’t happen for them. They had a lot of good players on that tour but the wheels came off.”

Mike Brearley picks up another unlikely winner's cheque after the victory at Edgbaston


AAP reporter John Coomber agrees. As he puts it “The boys lost their senses, couldn’t think straight. Ridiculous things happen when top-level sport comes down to the crunch. You think of Jean Van de Velde climbing into the brook at Carnoustie [at the 1999 Open Championship] and trying to hit the ball out of the water.”

Divisions lurked beneath the surface of this outwardly confident side. Hughes had never earned the respect of senior pros Marsh and Lillee, even though they all played for the same dominant Western Australia state side. In his revealing Hughes biography Golden Boy, Christian Ryan described how Marsh longed for the captaincy himself. As a direct result, a scowling Lillee would regularly bowl bouncers at Hughes in the nets.

England, by contrast, had solved their leadership issues by this stage. Botham famously resigned the captaincy after bagging a pair at Lord’s – a soggy draw which left his record standing at zero wins and four defeats from 12 Tests (nine of them against the mighty West Indians). In his 1995 autobiography, he would grumble about his short tenure, insisting that he was just “getting to grips with captaincy” when it ended. 

Today, at 65, he takes a different view. “It’s the question people ask me the most now,” Botham says. “And with hindsight, maybe I should have said ‘No’ when I was first asked to do it. But when someone comes to you, at the age of 24, and says ‘We’d like you to captain England,’ that would have been a big call.

“I was able to express myself a bit more [after stepping down]. When you’re thinking about the Test side, it was ‘Am I going to be captain for the next Test? How much of a say am I going to have in who’s playing?’ Whereas when Brears came in … well, Bob wouldn’t have played [at Headingley] if it had been left to the selectors. He immediately saw through all that and had a much bigger say which was important.

“Now you sit and reflect and hear the stories coming out from the family. Liam was at bloody primary school, getting picked on because of who his dad was. Kath protected me from all that at the time. When you put it all together, we made the right decision, and history I think will back that up.”

Botham recalls England going to Headingley in a curious mood, triggered by the patrician attitude of England’s chairman Alec Bedser. There was a feeling of defiance in the dressing-room – as if England wanted not only to hit back at the Aussies, but also to deliver a resounding “Up yours!” to the hierarchy at Lord’s.

1981 Ashes results

“When I resigned the captaincy at Lord’s, the whole team was watching the TV,” Botham explained. “Then Bedser came on and said ‘Yes he has resigned but I was going to sack him anyway.’ A lot of the guys were giggling and sniggering because that summed up the situation at the time. It was impossible to work under those circumstances and it just wouldn’t happen any more. Thinking one Test at a time was ridiculous.

“With that laughter, everyone just loosened up. We went to Headingley and it was a different dressing-room in terms of confidence, the way the guys were talking. We levelled up the series very quickly and really I didn’t think the Aussies were ever in it again.”

‘You never like to lose – but I wouldn’t change it’

This summer, on the 40th anniversary of each of the three Ashes victories, Botham is holding a dinner for the surviving team-mates who played in that match. 

“There’s a couple that won’t be there, which is very sad,” he says, in reference to Willis and Graham Dilley, who both lost their lives to cancer. “They both had a huge part to play at Headingley. Graham with his runs and that great catch on the boundary when he got Marsh. Bob with his wickets. The rest of us will remember them, the fallen if you like.”

Since we spoke, Mike Hendrick – who featured in the first and last Tests of the series – has sadly joined that short but poignant list. The last public picture of Hendrick was taken at one of Botham’s gatherings, and its circulation on social media after his death prompted a swell of fond memories. 

For those still in good health, the bonds forged by that legendary summer remain so powerful that they even reach across the the other side of the world.

“Whenever Ian Botham comes out to Australia, I try to catch up with him in Brisbane,” said Kent, “and so do a couple of the other fellas. The beauty of it is that there seems to be a wonderful camaraderie, whether you were an opponent or not. You never like to be a loser, but I wouldn’t change the experience for the world.”

  • Donations to the Bob Willis Fund, which supports research into prostate cancer, can be made at www.bobwillisfund.org