Sporting Lookback: Botham’s Ashes – The 1981 Ashes Series
There is not much more that can summarise cricket better than the idea of it being a team game comprised of individuals. A week today marks the 39-year anniversary of the start of Botham’s Ashes of 1981, and what better time is there to have a lookback at arguably one of the best and most exciting series of cricket ever to be played?
Sir Ian Botham was the first of a new generation of cricket; with an attacking playstyle and having the ability to influence the game with the bat, the ball and from the field, he came back from the turmoil of recent dreadful form to arguably single-handedly win the 1981 Ashes Test Series.
After some turbulent years both for Botham, after his brief stint as England Captain saw comprehensive losses both at home and overseas, cricket was thrusted into the limelight after one of the most compelling series in history took place.
After Australia took the low-scoring first test at Trent Bridge by four wickets and Lord’s finished in a stalemate, Botham resigned from captaincy after some considerable pressure from the powers that be in the English setup. He was winless in his 12 tests to date and had finished the Lord’s test with a pair of ducks. The form that had generated the widely held belief that he was far and away England’s best player had disappeared, and his abrasive attitude was reportedly creating friction within the camp. Mike Brearley was somewhat surprising reinstated as captain and so set the chain of events that led to England overturning their 1-0 deficit into a comprehensive 3-1 victory, with Botham himself earning the man of the match award at Headingley, Edgbaston and Old Trafford in back-to-back test matches.
It was Headingley that is considered the defining test in this series. Of course, hindsight has shown that there were numerous factors leading up to the test, separate to Botham’s resignation, such as the shock inclusion of the late Bob Willis, who famously took 8-43 in a blistering performance to finish off the wonderful comeback in the third test.
Whilst Willis’ heroics are rarely forgotten, it is vital to remember that England were at one point 227 runs behind Australia’s first innings total when the follow on was enforced. In fact, when Botham arrived at the crease, his team were 5 wickets down and still 122 runs behind – not only was an innings defeat on the cards, but with only one team ever having won before when asked to follow on (all the way back in 1894), the odds were near on impossible. Botham’s 149*, consisting of delightful cuts, aggression down the wicket and the odd hoick to cow corner, came from just 148 deliveries; but even when the innings came to an end, Australia were still expected to cruise to their target of 140.
Again, it is sometimes easy to forget that they were doing just that, cruising. Approaching lunch on day 5, Australia were sitting pretty on 56-1 when Willis came into the attack. A man in a similar dire run of form to Botham, Willis took three wickets in quick succession to turn the tables, the scoreboard all of a sudden 58-4 at lunch… the rest as they say, is history. In a rollercoaster of a match that saw wickets tumble and several counterpunches from the Australian tail-enders in an attempt to take the initiative back, it was Willis supported by Chris Old who turned the series on it’s head.
Of course, Headingley sticks in the memory for obvious reasons. But the collapse of a relatively impressive Australian side followed at Edgbaston. With a measly target of 151 set by England on a flat batting track, Botham took charge with the ball and conjured up a phenomenal spell of 5 wickets for just 1 run. Botham had managed to dust himself down from the disappointment of a failed captaincy and had remembered the basics of the game – channelling his evident frustrations into both the bat and ball. His second innings figures returned an emphatic 5-11 off 14 overs, and England won by 29 runs.
Old Traffic followed, and this time, he followed up his first innings golden duck with a fantastic second innings 118, hitting at a strike rate of 115 and finishing with 6 sixes and 13 fours – only being at the crease for a little over two hours. This was enough to receive his third consecutive man of the match award, contributing to a comprehensive 103 run victory and most importantly, achieving an unattainable lead going into the 6th and final test.
Of course, going down in history as Botham’s Ashes is a slight injustice to the rest of that England team. The test may not have gone down in history as one of the most entertaining ever to be played if it weren’t for Willis’ contribution with the ball, or Dilley and Old’s contributions towards partnerships in that famous innings at Headingley. Thoughts wonder what may have happened had Botham decided to continue captaining the side until the end of the series perhaps…
In truth, the reason Botham’s name is eponymous with this series is because of his ability to turn his fortunes around. At the time, he was one-of-a-kind, and this talent had disappeared in the summers before with the heavy weight of captaincy and poor form. By sticking true to himself, playing the game the way he thought it should be played and doing it with a certain swagger not stereotypically seen from an Englishman meant that his performances made everyone take note.
Here is to Sir Botham, and a fantastic sporting performance.