England V Australia – 1981

England went into game three of the rubber one down, having been edged out in a low-scoring affair at Trent Bridge – no side managing to make 200 in any innings – and having enjoyed marginally the better of things in a hard-fought draw at Lord’s.

All eyes turned to Headingley as Kim Hughes’s Australia went into the game unchanged with just three seamers – Lillee, Alderman and Lawson – and Ray Bright the token spinner. England, led by Mike Brearley again following the axing of Ian Botham from the captaincy, made two changes for the game, dropping Bob Woolmer to make way for Brearley and strengthening their own seam attack by replacing spinner John Emburey with local boy Chris Old.

Australia won the toss and elected to bat, grinding their way out to 401 for 9 in almost two days of gloom and frequent interruptions. John Dyson made his maiden test century and skipper Kim Hughes contributed 89, but by and large England – Ian Botham excepted who bowled superbly, taking 6-95 – did not make the best use of the conditions.
England’s first innings was a horror show, only Botham doing himself any justice in the face of the three-pronged Aussie attack with a brisk 50. Boycott, in front of his adoring Leeds public, could only muster a dozen in an hour and a half as the home side went quietly for 174, a deficit of 227 and an invitation to follow-on.

There was time for England to start their second innings on Saturday evening, losing Graham Gooch for an ignominious duck. In those days, Sunday was a rest day, and England would have had plenty of time to contemplate their fate.
Monday, 20 July was the stuff of legend – a day written large in history for many reasons, but we shall concentrate on the cricket, paying mere lip-service to one of the more famous wagers in sport.

England were awful for the most part. Starting the day at 7-1 and with Terry Alderman rampant, an innings defeat before tea was on the cards. Boycott was largely immovable in the face of hostile bowling, but by and large the English batsmen were undone by a mixture of terrific seam-up and rash shots.

Enter Botham, who a fortnight before had walked back to the pavilion at Lord’s with a pair to his name amidst the most extraordinary silence – as deafening as any silence can be. With the criticism of Fleet Street still ringing in his ears, he immediately launched the most outrageous assault on the hitherto unplayable bowling, sending the ball to all parts of the outfield.

Geoffrey Boycott and Bob Taylor departed in quick succession, but in the shape of Graham Dilley, Botham found an unlikely ally who could at least stay awhile. To tell the truth, Dilley gave as good as he got, scoring 56 himself in an eighth wicket partnership which added an invaluable 117, and in the process the pair carried England past the innings defeat and into credit.

When Dilley became Alderman’s fifth victim of the innings and his eighth of the match, the test match, on paper, was all but over. In truth, it hadn’t even started. Chris Old strode out to the centre in what was his penultimate appearance for England. He opened his own broad shoulders and fired a quick-fire 29, but once more the giant from Heswall, Cheshire held centre stage. The pair blazed another 67 in no time at all and in the process, Ian Terence Botham went to his seventh test match hundred and his second against the oldest enemy.

Following one liberty too many, Old was bowled by Geoff Lawson. The home side were nine down, 92 ahead, and in a position to at least bloody the nose of the opposition.
Last man Bob Willis faced just nine deliveries in over half an hour. Botham farmed the bowling perfectly, smashing a boundary then bagging a single off the fifth or last delivery of the over. When stumps were drawn at the end of a quite remarkable day, England were still going on 351-9. Just a few more…. just a few more….

Day 5 started in anti-climax as Willis surrendered meekly, caught by Alan Border off the bowling of Alderman. When the valiant rearguard acton was over, the partnership had eked out another 37, Botham remaining undefeated on 149.
Australia had been left the small matter of just 130 for victory. It might as well have been a thousand, because the script had already, seemingly, been written. Botham tore in, Graeme Wood flicked, Bob Taylor, surely the safest pair of gloves in the history of these classic encounters held on – 13-1.

Suddenly, the game took a most unexpected twist. Brearley rotated his bowlers, but for over an hour Trevor Chappell and John Dyson held firm and gradually the victory target drew closer. One final throw of the dice – Willis again. He tore in to Chappell, edged, Taylor once more, 56-2.

There then followed the most remarkable hour of hostile bowling Headingley had ever witnessed in its long history. Hughes, the Australian captain, snaffled by Botham at slip for a duck. Yallop, trapped like a rabbit in a car’s headlights went in the same over for the same score. 58-4 Chris Old, miserly, giving nothing away got in on the act, spreading Alan Border’s stumps. Australia had clawed their way precisely half way to the target, but in the process had lost half their wickets.

Willis continued to steam in, roared on by a Headingley crowd which was growing in number and decibels by the minute. Then the wicket which, in the context of the match was more valuable than any other – that of Dyson, the immovable object. He, too, fell to the by now familiar Willis-Taylor combination. Then Rodney Marsh and Geoff Lawson were simply blasted away by Willis, his wild locks streaming out behind him – 75-8.

Slowly, slowly, the euphoria turned to despair as Ray Bright and Dennis Lillee dragged their side back into the match. A single, a boundary through the slips. Everything they swung at seemed to go for runs. The hundred – that psychological barrier broken and so, it seemed, the collective will of the English.

One more huge effort from big-hearted Bob Willis. Arms and legs pumping, Lillee indiscrete, Gatting the catch, leaving just Alderman, number 11, to go. Still 20 needed. A single and Bright, the senior partner, faced the Warwickshire speedster. A swing, a miss, the stumps seemed to explode in slow motion. Within seconds, the entire England side simply disappeared amidst thousands of spectators.

Bob Willis ended the game with 8-43 from the most hostile 15.1 overs you could imagine. Victory to the home side by 18 runs, levelling the series with three games to play.
Ian Botham went on to destroy Australia at Edgbaston with the ball, then made yet another immaculate century in game five at Old Trafford to ensure that all argument, over whether the previous year’s three game series between the protagonists in Australia was an ‘Ashes’ series or not, was rendered irrelevant for a while yet.

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