Until it was usurped by the 2005 Series, the Ashes contest of 1981 is considered by the aficionados to have been the most exciting battle in the history of the England/Australia cricketing rivalry.
Whilst it was a nail biting Summer, 1981 pales into insignificance when compared to England’s 2005 victory and to a certain extent the 2010/11 triumph for a number of reasons…
Both teams, and especially Australia contained a lot of very average players who failed miserably against top opposition. Dyson, Wood, Yallop, Kent, Bright and Trevor Chappell proved how thin matters were in the talent stakes for Australia, whilst Boycott, Taylor and Gower aside, non of that England side could have been considered truly World Class.
Willis was far too unreliable and Gatting epitomised a Hickesque flat track bully, whilst Gooch never sorted his Alderman problem and was dropped in the 1989 rubber. Old had severe temperament issues whilst Dilley never cut the mustard on a consistent basis.
Ian Botham was the main beneficiary of the Tourist’s weaknesses and it is instructive to relate that his record against the West Indies, the benchmark team of the era is thus; 20 tests, 791 runs at 21.40 HS 81 and 61 wickets at 35.18 with only three “fivefers”.
The pitches in 1981 were dreadful and their capricious nature meant that luck played a very large part in proceedings. If hapless Aussie Skipper Kim Hughes had not enforced the follow on at Headingley then it would have been England batting last on this appalling track which went up and down to extremes, making batting properly virtually impossible.
Willis, once he found his radar, only had to put the ball in the right place and the pitch did the rest.
In 2005 the Australians were acknowledged to be one of the best sides in Test History, and without doubt the England team of that vintage must rank, as a whole as one of our best ever.
The Oval, September 12th 2005. England were reeling at 125-5 and a heartbreaking end to a magical Summer seemed inevitable.
Brett Lee reversing the ball at 90+ mph and at the other end Shane Warne, the greatest man ever to turn his arm over in History, and the small matter of Glenn McGrath plus a canny tactician in Aussie Skipper Ricky Ponting leading a side that needed to win.
Step up Kevin Pietersen, ably abetted by Paul Collingwood and Ashley Giles, who went on to score 158 under the most excruciating pressure and with the whole country watching in breathless anticipation.
If he failed we would surely never win the Ashes again for another generation.
He didn’t buckle, played correct but brutal shots and defended with trance like concentration to see off an absolutely top drawer (Tait aside) attack and secure the Urn for England.
This MUST the greatest innings ever played in Tests for England, given the context?
Step back in time…
Monday July 20th 1981, Leeds and England are 135-7, 92 more runs are needed to make the Aussies bat again. Ladbrokes is offering 500-1 against a home victory.
“Shall we give it some humpty?”, a demob happy Ian Botham says to his batting partner, Worcester bowler Graham Dilley and so was launched the greatest comeback in Test history.
Agricultural slogging, abysmal Captaincy from Hughes, a knackered Lillee just out of hospital and recovering from pneumonia, plus brainless bowling from the callow Alderman and the raw Lawson, with a massive dollop of luck saw Botham turn the match, and the series on it’s head with 148* to set the Tourists 130 to win.
The pitch by this stage had become no better than a park strip and once Willis got into his stride, given the brittle nature of the Aussie batting line up, only one result was possible.
Nevertheless this game marked a turn around in fortunes for Test cricket in this country as the masses learned to love the longer form of the game again, and Botham became the hero for a generation of youngsters.
“500-1, the Miracle Of Headingley 1981” is a fantastic read, giving us a Cooks Tour of British Social History of the time, the contrast between Brixton, Toxteth, mass unemployment and the Royal Wedding are analysed and the Pop music of the time is evoked as a soundtrack to the narrative.
All the stats are there for the nerd in us all (or is it just me? Probably yes.) as well as a jaunty look at the characters involved in these remarkable events.
That day myself and fellow 13 year old cricket nut Mike Nolan, were dispatched by our inspirational teacher Mr. Walsh to view the only TV in our Roman Catholic Middle School St. John Fisher, with strict instructions to keep himself, Mr. Dex and Mr. Jackson fully appraised of events as they unfolded. Non were disappointed.
In this era of SATS and League Tables, can you imagine such a thing?
But the combination of the late Mr. Dex (wicked break time leg spinner), the genial intellect and social awareness of Mr. Walsh and the slightly bonkers Mr. Jackson, set countless youngsters on the right path in life and provided a template for my own teaching career.