I was there, you know. On the world’s most famous cricket ground on the day of England’s most famous Test win. In the old Lord’s press box next to the pavilion. True, the win in question was not actually at Lord’s: it was 200 miles away at Headingley. But we remember the most dramatic events through the prism of where we were when we heard the news.

Actually Middlesex versus Worcestershire was an eventful match in its own right and it was reported fully in the Guardian by the young deputy cricket correspondent, though not as conscientiously as usual. There was a TV in the Lord’s box and from late on 20 July 1981 until mid-afternoon the next day, Headingley absorbed more and more of his attention. And of the nation’s.

Finally England – forced to follow on 227 behind Australia, and still 92 adrift when the seventh second-innings wicket fell – won the third Test of the 1981 Ashes series by 18 runs. All made possible by Oscar-winning direction from Mike Brearley, lead performances by Ian Botham and Bob Willis, with Graham Dilley as best supporting actor.

Bob Willis tore through Australia’s batsmen to bring England victory at Headingley in 1981
Bob Willis tore through Australia’s batsmen to bring England victory.
Photograph: Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Was it the greatest Test of all? Intrinsically, no. Most of the game was routine and deeply depressing for England, and only 2,000 arrived on a drizzly Monday morning, day four, to watch the last rites.

But take it in context, as in old-fashioned O-level history: events leading up to the war, the individual battles that comprised it, and the events that followed. No cricket match was as consequential as this. It reverberated through the decade and beyond. Some of those consequences were arguably bad for the winning side. The Second World War was like that, too.

Thirteen months earlier, with no thoughtful, well-mannered, Varsity-educated contenders in sight, the England selectors took a deep breath and made their star player Botham captain at 24, succeeding Brearley who, rising 40, was keen to exercise different parts of his giant brain. It was a hospital pass, since the next two series were against the fearsome West Indies pace battery.

Botham’s impulsiveness, on and off the field, was one liability. Worse, his own form collapsed: 12 Tests passed, four wins and eight draws (seven with England on the arse-end) before he was summoned after the second Ashes Test of 1981. He got his retaliation in first and quit; Brearley was persuaded back for the rest of the summer. The weight of the world off Botham, he took six wickets in the first innings and made 50, after failing in his last 21 attempts. It achieved little. As his team-mates tottered on day three, the then-novel electronic scoreboard flashed up the Ladbrokes match odds: 500-1 England. It was a misjudgment worth millions in free publicity.

Botham walked to the crease on Monday afternoon at 105 for five to join the pottering Geoff Boycott. Victory was in no one’s mind, certainly not that of Botham, who had already checked out of the hotel. But he played quietly for a while before Boycott got out, which was not in the script. Then Dilley came in at No 9 and they both went into ohfuckit mode. You could simulate their partnership a thousand times, and the ones that Botham later shared with Chris Old and Willis – and Botham would have been homeward bound every time. But through power, luck and sheer audacity everything came right.

Even so the next morning Australia only needed 140 and were soon 56 for one. But they were ratty, no longer so sure. And suddenly they were faced with Willis. Creaking at the knees, written off as a spent force, he tore in, eyes ablaze, like Conan the Barbarian in a bad mood. Eight for 43. Unbelievable.

Ian Botham smiles after hooking Australia’s Geoff Lawson for 4 during his magnificent 149 not out in England’s second innings at Headingley.
Ian Botham smiles after hooking Australia’s Geoff Lawson for 4 during his magnificent 149 not out in England’s second innings at Headingley. Photograph: Adrian Murrell/Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Curiously England as a whole could not shake off their own bad mood. They were livid with the press for writing them off, as if they had not done the same themselves. It transpired that two players had taken a punt at 500-1. But they were the Australians, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh: £15 between them. I do not believe they rigged the result. But it was a terrible thing to do.

And they were punished all that summer. Botham let slip the surly bonds of earth and ascended into the stratosphere. Next he took five for one at Edgbaston to put England 2-1 up. Then he scored a century – technically far superior to Headingley – to regain the Ashes.

I was elsewhere for both those, too: on the field myself (as usual without distinction), committing serial misfields in parks cricket during Edgbaston; reporting from the Oval when all eyes were at Old Trafford. But wherever you were in Britain, cricket was hot and would remain so throughout the 1980s. Football was in eclipse: beset by hooliganism and – at Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough – avoidable tragedies. The leading English footballers were smaller-than-life, no match for the rich characters of cricket.

For most of that time I was the No 1 cricket correspondent: there were front-page stories galore, many recording the picaresque adventures of Botham. Banned for pot-smoking, he came back in 1986 to take wickets with his first and 12th balls to equal and break Lillee’s then Test record of 355. “Who writes your scripts?” demanded his teammate Graham Gooch.

But England lost that series to New Zealand and stern critics began to sense the Bothamesque belief in magic which took hold in 1981 was no substitute for practice, application and fitness. Botham bowled his last over in first-class cricket with his willy hanging out.

He is now in the House of Lords. Funny old world. But with him, there may be one last twist. I don’t suppose he will ever get a red mist and thump the Lord Speaker. But if Ladbrokes are offering, it might be worth a small punt at 500-1.


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