It’s time to welcome back Haroon Khalid for the second instalment of his look back at the 1981 Ashes series. 

After the dumbfounding goings on at Leeds, the teams reconvened at Edgbaston on July 30th for the fourth test. The morning of the match was warm and sunny; the pitch looked good for batting and likely to take spin later in the game. Hughes suggested the pitch was good for 800 runs[1]. Ultimately, the whole match would end up yielding 13 fewer.

Given the conditions, Dilley, despite his Leeds batting heroics was replaced by Emburey. For Australia, Hogg replaced the injured Lawson and Trevor Chappell made way for Martin Kent. At the toss, Brearley called correctly and elected to bat.

Although several players got starts, the England innings couldn’t really fire, and the home team were dismissed for a disappointing 189 deep into the evening session; the grimacing assassin Terry Alderman accounting for a further five victims, thereby taking his tally for the series to an astonishing 25 wickets. By the close, two wickets from Chris Old reduced the tourists to 19-2 including the dangerous Border.

Friday was overcast and, bolstered by the middle order, Australia managed to overhaul England’s total during what at times was a tetchy second day. They were finally dismissed for 258. Emburey justified his selection by taking 4-43 from 26 overs. Perhaps more concerning for England, aside from the 69 run lead, was Willis’s no ball count: 25 in all. By the close, England had lost Brearley lbw to Lillee to a ball that kept ominously low; the bowler celebrating with a Gene Kellyesque mid-air double heel click. The home side ended the day on 29-1.

The third day saw the ground once again bathed in sunshine. Showing signs of wear earlier than anticipated, Ray Bright took 5-68 from 34 miserly overs. Exploiting his liking for English conditions, Alderman exhibited his skills adding three more victims to his tally, which by the end of the series would amount to 42 wickets. Only the Middlesex pair of Emburey and Gatting passed 30. England were finally all out for 219, leaving Australia to score 151 to level the series. By the close they’d reached 9-1.

Just a couple of miles up the road from Edgbaston was the old Bull Ring shopping centre. On the Sunday afternoon of the test match, Warwickshire’s headquarters ought to have been renamed as such, such was the cacophonic atmosphere emanating from the ground in the afternoon session. Before that however, despite the loss of two early wickets, the tourists reached 87-3 just after lunch with Border and Yallop still at the wicket. All seemed to be going smoothly for the Australians. Dickie Bird recalled that Brearley asked his advice at one point, to which the famous umpire advised the captain to bring himself on to bowl and get the game over with as soon as possible.

However, as soon as Emburey managed to snaffle both Yallop and Border, Brearley sensed a moment of Australian vulnerability. He immediately brought on the Gorilla (Botham) from the City End. It should be noted, however, that according to Brearley in his post-match interview, Botham himself was initially reluctant to take the ball. Nevertheless, at 3:50pm roared on by the crowd, he charged in.

With the third ball of his tenth over, Marsh aimed a drive through mid on and had his middle stump uprooted for 4. Bright then succumbed lbw to the next ball, which didn’t rise much above shin high; 114-7. Surely it couldn’t happen again, could it?

In Botham’s 13th over, Lillee drove injudiciously at a wide delivery which Taylor eventually managed to cling on to at the second attempt. By now Botham had taken 3 wickets in fewer than 3 overs, and clearly had the wind in his sails.

If either Hogg or Alderman could hang around with Kent, Australia might still have inched their way to their target. But this became academic when Kent, who by now was trying to keep Hogg away from the strike, attempted to drive across a straight delivery and was bowled for 10; 121-9.

When Alderman attempted a couple of wild swishes and was bowled by Botham 0, England had completed an unlikely win by 29 runs. Botham’s match winning spell consisted of 5 wickets for just one run. Remarkable.

Given the heroics at Leeds a couple of weeks beforehand, England’s win in Birmingham didn’t seem so incredible to me as a 12-year old lad at the time. It is only when one looks more closely at the match circumstances, and appreciates both Botham’s prodigious abilities and Brearley’s skill to read the situation (plus his personal influence upon Botham), that one can truly appreciate the audacity of England’s win. It was a superb effort from the pair of them. And more importantly their team was now 2-1 up. Advantage England.

Lessons not learnt

The contrasting mood between the two camps was palpable at this stage. Buoyed by the victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, England were upbeat. In spite of this, they did make several changes.

Knowing that a draw would secure the Ashes, they bolstered the batting by recalling the Kentish pair of Chris Tavare and Alan Knott for Willey and Taylor respectively. The selection of Tavare demonstrated that England’s current search for a solid number three is far from a recent phenomenon. Meanwhile, Gooch was promoted up the order to open. England also handed a debut to local boy Paul Allott.

The sentiment in the Australian camp was really low at this stage. Not only were the loses at Leeds and Birmingham devastating in their manner but they had also created tensions between senior players.

Hughes had been appointed to the captaincy after Greg Chappell had decided to opt out of touring. Hughes was very much the Australian cricket establishment’s choice. And this didn’t sit at all well with Australia’s senior most players Marsh and Lillee. To put things bluntly they simply didn’t get on.

Marsh and Lillee were the hard-nosed, hard-as-nails mainstays of the Australian team, unfairly ostracised for their involvement with World Series Cricket. Hughes, on the other hand, was an articulate, gregarious and supremely confident, dashing appropriator (at least to Marsh and Lillee). Moreover, Hughes had already gratingly replaced Marsh as captain of Western Australia after the Packer years. According to Lillee, the decision to elevate Hughes to the captaincy of WA has been “been done behind Rod’s back.”[2]

With Australia 2-1 down in an Ashes series they really ought to be winning 3-0, the dressing room atmosphere had become particularly noxious. And the rows between senior players didn’t set a particularly dignified example for the youngsters in the squad. Nevertheless, Australia only made one change – as consequence of injury to both Hogg and Lawson – as the tourists drafted the left arm medium fast Mike Whitney, who happened to be playing for Gloucestershire.

England managed to muster 231 by the second morning after Brearley won the toss, due in no small measure to 69 and 52 from Tavare and Allott respectively. Ominously for Australia, however, Border broke his finger whilst attempting a catch at slip.

What followed was another egregious batting performance by the tourists. Initially led by Wood, they raced to 20-0 from four overs. Then it all went wrong. Willis ripped out the heart of the Australian top order and reduced them to 24-4. In spite of a counterattacking 52 from Kent, Australia were dismissed for 130. England ended the second day securely enough on 70-1.

Over twenty thousand people crammed into Old Trafford on Saturday. As long as England were able to build a substantial enough lead to put Australia under pressure, the Ashes won in 1978/79 would be retained.

Unfortunately it didn’t start well. Not only was the accumulation of runs tedious, but the loss of wickets worrisome. Soon after lunch, the score was just 105-5.

At this point Botham (on a king pair) strode out to join Tavare. He started cautiously enough, making just 3 from his first 30 balls, and although he then showed signs of subsequent acceleration with three fours in five balls, there was only a little hint of what might come.

Wanting to exploit the position in which England found themselves, Hughes took the second new ball with the lead at 252. However, this confidence was misplaced. Botham smashed the Australian attack to all parts of Old Trafford and humiliated Lillee, Alderman, Bright as well as Whitney. He would go on to hit 6 sixes and 13 fours in a knock of 118 off just 102 balls (rapid in any era).

Destructive though it was, this innings was no repeat of the Headingley slog-fest. And although not 100% chanceless, it produced clinical, dispassionate carnage. The two duck hooked sixes from Lillee, audacious; the pulled six into the Warwick Road end, dismissive. And although it wasn’t played under quite the same pressure as Leeds, England were by no means out of the woods early on in his innings.

However, like Leeds, the Australian bowlers didn’t seem to learn their lesson. They gave Botham too much scope to play his shots. As Richie Benaud opined on the BBC TV commentary “it doesn’t look to as though they’ve picked up anything from their Headingley experience – anything that gives him room outside the off stump, he just thrashes”.[3]

Following Botham’s dismissal, a sense normality began to prevail. With contributions from Tavare (78), Knott (59) and Emburey (57), England finished on 404, thus leaving Australia a world record 506 runs to level the series.

Australia were never likely to threaten the target, particularly when they were reduced to 24-2. However, contributions from Hughes (43), Yallop (a marvellous 114) and Marsh (47) meant that the game continued deep into the fifth day. Allan Border also made a gritty unbeaten century despite nursing the broken finger he’d sustained earlier in the game.

The end, when it came, had an air of inevitability. Whitney, having defended stoutly for 42 balls, fended Willis to Gatting at short leg. England had done the job. The Ashes were retained. And Botham collected his third successive man of the match award.

Last Rites

With the destiny of Ashes already decided, the teams played out a draw in the final test at the Oval during which there were centuries for Border, Boycott and Australian debutant Dirk Welham.

Even then Botham was tireless, bowling 89 overs in the match and taking ten wickets. Not to be outdone, Lillee showed his true class recording match figures of 11-159, thus earning him the man of the match award.

In the final innings of the match, Hughes set England 383 in a day. Despite being 144-6 in mid-afternoon, half centuries from Gatting, Brearley and Knott secured the draw. Unsurprisingly, but with delicious irony, Botham was presented with the man of series award by a certain Alec Bedser.

Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news[4]

1981 was a difficult year. The nation was beset with problems – industrial strife, soaring unemployment, inner city and social angst, as well as The Troubles in Northern Ireland were in the news. And for the first six months of 1981, Botham was also in the news – and not necessarily for the right reasons. Even the BBC’s Newsnight programme monitored Botham’s travails as his captaincy crumbled around him.

However, the events of that dramatic Monday of the third test turned the tide. Not only was cricket propelled to the front pages for the right reasons, but it also provided some relief for the country and created a new national hero. It even prompted questions (or at least one question) to be asked in the House Of Commons [5].

It all could’ve been so different though. Botham, for example, felt it unfair that he was only appointed captain on a match by match basis at the start of the summer. Suppose he’d continued in the role for the whole series? Would he have played so freely with the burdens of the captaincy? And what if the selectors had gone in a different direction?

Writing in The Times during the first test, John Woodcock wrote “still unrecognisable as the irrepressible bowler and brilliant catcher of a year ago, Botham’s performance must finally have convinced the selectors, for his own good, to make a change. They must turn to Boycott”.[6]

My own view is that this would have created a combustible combination. Boycott was in a strop with Botham for not seeking his counsel whilst on the West Indies tour. Furthermore, I would respectfully venture that Boycott would have not allowed Botham the freedom to express himself. The two would become ever more frustrated with each other.

Brearley by contrast managed his resources skilfully. He gave direction and then allowed not only Botham but others, notably Willis, to go about their business in the best way they knew. He also made players feel special.

Paul Allott later recalled that he was handed to the new ball for the Australian innings after scoring his maiden test fifty on debut. Moves such as this bred confidence. Brearley’s man management, coupled with the ability to exploit Australian vulnerabilities at key moments, were decisive. I doubt others at the time could’ve matched Brearley’s tactical and psychological acumen. This was as much Brearley’s Ashes as Botham’s.

Australia on the other hand, after being 1-0 up with the proverbial boot on the English windpipe at Headingley, failed to drive home their advantage. They allowed Botham and more infuriatingly Dilley, (who to that point had a first class average of a little over 16) to run amok.

Furthermore, I believe they underestimated the Brearley effect. The Australian model has always been to pick the best possible XI and then choose a captain from their number. If that applied to England, Brearley wouldn’t even have made the side never mind captain it. His test batting record was ordinary by any standard.

Whilst it is true that a captain can’t score the runs, take the wickets, or catch the catches for the other ten players, one thing he can do is read a situation, understand the resources under his stewardship, and deploy those resources to effect the desired outcome. Indeed of the run chase at Edgbaston, David Tossel said David Gower “referred to Brearley’s ability to act decisively like that during a small run chase as one of his great strengths”. Gower admitted that he personally wouldn’t have been so purposeful with the pressure on and might have  “questioned every decision ten times’.”[7]

Kim Hughes, on the other hand, simply didn’t have the confidence or co-operation of his senior players throughout the whole series. They just didn’t respect him. In his memoir, Lillee recalls “It was strange we lost the series 3–1 when we dominated so many of the sessions and, indeed, the Tests themselves. I have no doubt we were the better side, but for us it was an unhappy series, apart from not winning, because of the captaincy issue with Kim Hughes.”[8]

After the Ashes, Hughes went on to share the captaincy with Greg Chappell until the latter’s retirement in 1983/4. He then took the role full time but lasted only another year before tearfully resigning after another West Indian shellacking.

 In Context

As I mentioned in part one, 1981 will always trump 2005 in my mind because of the very nature of England’s comeback. And, of course, it was also a personal comeback for Botham given his parlous state after the first test.

After all, who would give a team, subject to the following circumstances, any sort of price?

  • Up to the end of the second test in 1981, since returning from Australia in 1978/9, England had played 20 and won only 2 of those matches (both against India).
  • England’s captain had a record of played 13, won nil before being sacked in favour of a 39 year old who then retired from all first class cricket the following year
  • England’s opponents were a team that included legends like Lillee, Marsh, and Border, as well as the top wicket taker in the series, Alderman.
  • England used twenty players during a six match series, including three wicket keepers, two of whom were over the age of 35. Their opponents used just fifteen.
  • England’s bowlers took 9 fewer wickets than Australia
  • The home side were on the edge of the precipice not once, but twice

The series witnessed some of the finest players and biggest personalities in the history of cricket. It was a gripping page-turner that enthralled the nation throughout that summer. The only thing missing was a supremely world class spinner.

In my opinion the 1981 Ashes was the greatest series ever. Or maybe it just seemed that way to this youthful Gen X-er who found himself spellbound by the unfolding drama? The Headingley test was particularly special. Although written about a match sixty years earlier, the following words would apply to Leeds just as sweetly:

‘Who on Saturday could have got the faintest glimpse of such an end to the match, even in the wildest flight of fancy? . . . Why, the miraculous is here, black magic, the very imps of mischief.’[9] – Neville Cardus 1921

Haroon Khalid

References:

[1] Woodcock, J., ed., 1982 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 1982, London, John Wisden & Co Ltd (Queen Ann Press)

[2] Lillee, D. 2003 Menace: The Autobiography Headline. Kindle Edition.

[3] Richie Benaud BBC TV commentary 15 August 1981

[4] Gill, Alan David & Cope, Julian. “Reward” Kilimanjaro, Mercury 1980

[5] Erskine, J. (Producer, Director), & Gregory, V. (Producer). (2011). From The Ashes [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: New Black Films

[6] Whitehead, R 2017 The Times on the Ashes: Covering Sport’s Greatest Rivalry From 1877 To The Present Day London, The History Press

[7] Tossell, D. 2015 Sex & Drugs & Rebel Tours: The England Cricket Team in the 1980s . Pitch Publishing. Kindle Edition

[8] Lillee, D.2003 Menace: The Autobiography Headline Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[9] Hamilton, D 2019 The Great Romantic: Cricket and the golden age of Neville Cardus, London Hodder & Stoughton