Rob Steen: Why Headingley ’81 was really a 900-1 shot

In 2001, readers of The Observer voted England’s probability-scuppering victory in the 1981 Headingley Ashes Test “Britain’s Most Memorable Sporting Moment”. I can’t believe my gob was the only one smacking itself. Not out of disapproval, but sheer incredulity.

Granted, Jonny Wilkinson had yet to drop-kick England to the Rugby World Cup and Liverpool were still four years from their startling comeback from a 3-0 half-time deficit to beat AC Milan and take the European Cup, to name but two. And modernity ruled OK: the most venerable of these “moments” was Len Hutton’s 364 against Australia in 1938, ruling out Fred Perry’s hat-trick of Wimbledon titles (1934-36) and Bob Fitzsimmons’ 1896 crowning as these islands’ lone undisputed world heavyweight champion of the born-and-bred brand.

Nor was this poll strictly a celebration of nation, or even success. Among the vote-catchers were Brazil’s fourth goal in the 1970 World Cup final, the Tommie Smith-John Carlos Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, Muhammad Ali’s insistence that he “ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong” and Erica Roe’s bare-chested charge at Twickenham.

All that notwithstanding, Headingley ’81 beat some formidable local competition – Manchester United winning the 1999 European Cup, and hence the “Treble”, in injury-time (ranked No.2); Gareth Edwards’s once-in-a-millennium try for the Barbarians against the 1973 All Blacks (No.3), Steve Redgrave’s fifth Olympic rowing gold (No.7) and, most improbably of all, Geoff Hurst completing his 1966 World Cup final hat-trick (a surprisingly lowly No.4). Dwell on that for a moment. The most successful day in the annals of the nation’s most fervent sporting obsession was deemed less memorable than a cricket match that did not result in a trophy, nor even decide the outcome of a series. The question is – why?

Context, social as well as cricketing, has a fair bit to do with it. The Britain of 1981 was assuredly no green and pleasant land. Soaring unemployment, massive layoffs, rising racism, the Yorkshire Ripper and the worst riots the nation had seen in more than a century competed to keep the average happiness quotient plumbing the depths. And no, the advent of MTV and the CD were not widely regarded as much consolation. Lifting spirits would have been a formidable ask for a team comprising the collective talents of Superman, Batman and Morgan Freeman. In their absence, Ian Terence Botham, Lord of the Lads, stepped up to the plate, closely followed by Robert George Dylan Willis, “Goose” of the greensward.

Both were licking wounds. England had lost a low-scoring nip-and-tucker at Trent Bridge and there had been a bore-draw at Lord’s, where Botham, fifty-less and five-for-free since succeeding Mike Brearley as captain, picked up a pair and then jumped before he was pushed (in actual fact, as Alec Bedser, the plain-speaking chairman of selectors, admitted with arguably excessive alacrity, he was pushed but given permission to jump first). Never before had England gone a dozen Tests without victory (that nine of them had been against Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indies moderated the angst not a jot). Never had Botham’s star sunk so low.

Willis, meanwhile, was not merely out of form and labouring with a knee injury; he was originally dropped from the Headingley 12. A letter was winging its way to Derbyshire, confirming Mike Hendrick’s selection, when England’s future record wicket-taker, then less than two-thirds of the way towards his eventual 325, rang Bedser to protest that his non-appearance for Warwickshire that weekend did not signify any lack of fitness for purpose.

Not that life in the Australian camp was a bowl of cherises. Kim Hughes, a bold, flaky, some would say brash young captain, was being undermined at every turn by his fellow West Australians, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh. It was strictly personal: Lillee believed his pal Marsh should have been skipper; each net encounter with Hughes was an opportunity to vent his considerable spleen. When, shortly before Headingley, coach Peter Philpott conveyed his concerns to Marsh over a beer, suggesting Hughes needed help, “Bacchus” was anything but compassionate: “He’s a big boy. Let him stew in it.”

In From the Ashes, James Erskine’s welcome new documentary about that summer, Marsh concedes that Hughes would have been better off had he and Lillee not toured. Whether they would have resisted those 500-1 odds at Headingley had the first-choice captain, Greg Chappell, not been on sabbatical, remains strictly a matter for them and their consciences.

For those who don’t chant “Botham 149 not out, Willis eight for 43, England win by 18” as their morning mantra, a brief resumé. On a pitch even its passionate groundsman Keith Boyce felt was erratic and sub-standard, Brearley’s recall as captain-cum-Merlin certainly did the trick for Botham, who ended both those fallow sequences in the first half of the match, but neither brains nor beefiness could prevent England from following on. Come the fourth afternoon they were still 92 behind with just three wickets left when the unpromising figure of Graham Dilley stalked out to join Botham.

In fact, 500-1 was a vast understatement. In 901 previous Tests (904 minus three abandonments), only one team had ever won after following on: England at Sydney in 1894, back when the Queen wasn’t Liz but Vicky. In terms of likelihood, it was as fantastical as a tie. It should have been 900-1.

DILLEY HAD PLONKED HIMSELF on a stool next to Willis in that Last Chance Saloon. Didn’t feel worthy, didn’t want to be there. “I’d lost it totally,” he told Alastair McLellan in a disarmingly frank interview for our account of the match, 500-1 – The Miracle of Headingley ’81. “I was running up to bowl thinking, ‘I’m not too sure where this is going’.” Galvanised as much by England’s nothing-to-lose plight as by having ended both those fallow sequences in the first innings, Botham suggested they “give it some humpty”; the rest is legend.

More easily forgotten are Chris Old’s crucial contributions – 29 to a 67-run ninth-wicket stand with the rampant Botham and the critical wicket of Allan Border the next afternoon, due reward for one of the best overs I’ve ever seen. Nor did Willis content himself with the best return for England since Jim Laker’s 10-53 at Old Trafford quarter of a century earlier; he also helped Botham add 37 for the last wicket, without which Australia would have won. Nevertheless, there was only ever going to be one man of the match.

Brearley bottled the essence of it all with characteristic wisdom. All the nutritional diets, training laps and net practice in the world are useless without temperament and instinct. “One of the qualities of top sportsmen is that once they sense a chance they go for it, they don’t let their grip go, they enjoy their moments to the full. Botham was, by this time, lord of all that he surveyed. Having been ground down, bit by bit, over the course of an unrewarding year, he found himself back on top, without a care in the world, utterly relaxed. He would never be timid; but nor would he become reckless. He had added a foot to his stature, but not by taking care.”

What floated so many boats was that devil-may-care audacity, that defiant what-the-hellness. We’d been transported back to a 19th Century village meadow, with Botham the smithy twanging his braces and clobbering the snobs. To learn that he was motivated primarily by the ego-bruising prospect of Dilley outscoring him might dampen ardour for some, but it shouldn’t. Nor should it matter that, according to physio Bernard Thomas, the manic glint in Willis’s blank, pleasureless eyes on that astonishing final afternoon was probably attributable to self-hypnosis (outlining his instructions to his other-worldly spearhead in From the Ashes, “Hit the stumps or hit the man,” grins a mischievous Brearley). Whatever it took, the upshot, over the course of those three hypnotic sessions, was a journey from no hope to unmitigated glory. And pure enchantment.

From first ball to last, there have been more enthralling Tests, including the very next one at Edgbaston, where Botham’s 5 for 1 in 28 balls conjured up another seat-of-the-pants win. But for legions of Poms, if not too many Cobbers, Headingley ’81 remains the apogee of sport’s transformative powers and the epitome of post-Biblical magic.

When I recall it now, I’m reminded of the late, great Ian Dury’s comment about Steely Dan, my favourite band, whose music the sex ‘n’ drugs’ n’ rock ‘n’ roller inimitably characterised as “consistently upful”. That’ll do me.

Full scorecard

*This article celebrates the 30-year anniversary of Headingley 1981, which took place on July 16-21 during that memorable cricketing summer

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One Response to Rob Steen: Why Headingley ’81 was really a 900-1 shot

  1. Andy says:

    Just a comment about stats and the real odds, coz I’m a big old pedant. The 500-1 odds were offered only after England were already following on, so you would need to know how frequently teams had previously won after following on, ignoring all tests where there was no follow on, which is obviously a lot less than 1 in 901. In fact, 500-1 was probably quite generous, since it has happened at least twice more recently.

    What you say would be true if at the start of any match you offered odds that one of the teams would follow on and win that match.

    Anyway, I missed it at the time due to being on holiday, so I’ve enjoyed seeing the tv coverage for the first time on ESPN the last couple of weeks.