Friday, 15 July 2011

Botham's Ashes - 30 Years On

This summer sees the thirtieth anniversary of not just one of the most memorable test series of all time, but one of the key sporting moments of the post war years.  The 1981 Ashes series from the outset looked to be a close contest, but the reverses suffered by Australia in this series haunted them until the Mark Taylor/Steve Waugh lead teams became the best team in the cricketing world in 1995.

Australia started slight underdogs, entirely down to their inexperienced batting line up.  Greg Chappell was missing, his younger brother Trevor would play during this series.  Captaining the side would be Kim Hughes, three years before Brisbane & all that.  Graham Yallop was the other experienced batsman, while Alan Border was playing in his first Ashes tour (after making his debut during the 5-1 home defeat in 1978/79).  Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee were still there, Lillee was backed up by the inexperienced duo of Geoff Lawson & Terry Alderman, with Rodney Hogg making up the pace attack.  England had blooded lots of promising players during the Packer years, in particular Gooch, Gower, Gatting & Botham.  Botham started this series captaining the England side.

Trent Bridge hosted the First Test, a test that started badly for the favourites.  Australia skittled England out for 185, with the debutant Alderman taking 4 for 68, his away swingers immediately finding a home in English conditions.  England countered, by bowling Australia out for 179.  Border top scored with 63, with Dilley & Willis taking 3 wickets each.  Given the chance to set a tough target for Australia, England were then skittled out for 125, Lillie & Alderman taking 5 wickets each.  Australia won by 4 wickets, on what was the first time that play took place on a Sunday during a test match.

The Lords test was notable for two things.  Lawson’s 7 for 81 in England’s first innings, and Botham’s pair.  Botham was now under pressure, the headline in London’s Evening Standard said Botham Must Go.  After that test, he did.  Taking over was Mike Brearley, who Botham replaced the year previously.  His first Test back in charge would be the Third Test, taking place at Headingley, which would start thirty years ago tomorrow.

Things did not start well for the new regime.  Australia batted first and made 401 for 9 before declaring just before the end of the second day.  Opener John Dyson top scored with 102 (the first century of the series), the captain Hughes made 89.  Botham took 6 for 95.  England crumbled to 174 in their first innings, with Botham top scoring with 50, Dennis Lillee took 4 for 49.  The follow on was enforced, with England finishing day three on 7 for 1, losing Gooch for a duck.  At this point the scoreboard flashed up the latest odds, with an England win quoted at 500/1.  Lillee and Marsh took the bet, not knowing what would happen after the rest day.

England checked out of their hotels on the Monday morning thinking that they would go 2-0 down at some point.  Australia were certainly intent on making inroads, and did just that reducing England to 135 for 7.  With Botham & Dilley at the crease, both batsmen began to slash and to play shots.  At first it was to frustrate the Australian’s, to go down with a fight.  Both batsmen then began to mount a substantial partnership, as the 200 approached.  When they passed 227, Australia knew they had to bat again.  Dilley was out for 56, but the game had changed in the 80 minutes that both men were at the crease.  England were effectively 25 for 8.  Botham was still there and carried on apace, as steadily one of the great sporting moments was unfolding.  Just before reaching his century, Botham hit a shot over Alderman into the Football ground end, prompting the legendary piece of commentary from Richie Bennaud “Don't even bother looking for that. It's gone into the confectionery stall… and out again.”  By the end of day four, England led by 124 runs and maybe had something to play with depending on how long Botham stuck around.

England only put on a further 5 runs before being bowled out, setting Australia the relatively easy target of 130.  Botham nabbed the early wicket of Wood, but Australia then settled down, proceeding to 56.  Willis had been bowling from the Football stand end for 5 overs, and then Brearley switched Willis to the Kirkstall Lane end.  When Willis got Chappel to a rearing delivery, suddenly Australia started to collapse.  Hughes, Yallop, Border & Dyson fell in quick succession, while Marsh stuck around for a bit.  Bright & Lillee put on 35 before Willis broke through again.  Willis took 8 for 43 as England completed a remarkable turnaround to win by 18 runs.  The first time since 1895 that a side won after following on.
If England had though that they had turned the corner, they got a rude awakening during the next test, which took place at Edgebaston.  England were skittled out for 189, with Alderman taking 5/42.  A stand of 51 form Hughes & Yallop helped Australia to a first innings lead of 69.  Ray Bright’s 5/68 helped to restrict England to 219, which gave Australia a target of 151.  In short England found themselves in a similar hole to the one they found themselves in at Headingley.  Australia seemed to cope better advancing to 87/3 and then to 105/4 before disaster struck.  Border was caught off his gloves off Emburey just before Botham was given a spell bowling from the pavilion end.  Botham’s pitched up deliveries brought about another Australian collapse, as Botham took 5 wickets for 1 run in this spell (right) to win the match for England by 29 runs.

Australia were now behind in a series that they controlled for all bar 3 sessions.  It got much worse for them in the Fifth test at Old Trafford.  Batting first, England posted 231, with Chris Tavare top scoring with 69, which took 4 hours and 47 minutes to compile.  Lillee & Alderman took 4 wickets apiece.  In response England reduced Australia to 130, Willis taking 4/63.  England took a first innings lead of 101, but squandered that position as England lost 3 quick wickets on the third morning.  When Brearley went at 105 for 5, England were effectively at 206 for 5 and in a bit of trouble.  Enter Botham again, who once again took the fight to the Australian bowlers.  He smashed 6 sixes and 13 fours as he struck 118 in 123 minutes.  The sixth wicket stand of 149 between Botham and Tavare took England to a lead in excess of 350.  England were bowled out for 404, setting Australia 506 to win.  Australia showed fight, but were eventually bowled out for 404 half an hour into the final session of day five. Yallop made 114 in just under 3 hours, while Border top scored while struggling with a broken finger, making 123 in 7 hours.  England had retained the Ashes.

The sixth and final test at the Oval could have given Australia a consolation victory.  Batting first, Australia posted 352, Border scoring 106 not out.  In reply, a 115 run partnership between Boycott (137) and Gatting (53) helped England to 314, conceding a 38 run deficit to Australia.  Lillee taking 7/89.  Second time around Australia set a target of 383, declaring on 344/9 before the start of day five.  The debutante Dirk Wellham top scored on 103.  Mike Hendrick & Botham shared 4 wickets apiece.  England clung on to get to 261 for 7 before the close of play.  Gatting top scored with 56, while Brearley’s dismissal on 51 was the last time on English soil that the combination of c Marsh b Lilley  appeared on scoreboards.

It is interesting to note that the commercialisation of the sport is still in its infancy here, and that this series is sandwiched between the Packer years (which affected Australian cricket) and the rebel tours of South Africa (which would affect English Cricket the following year and Australian Cricket later on in the decade).  As I said above Australia were now a team in decline, though this did not appear visible until the West Indies visited Australia in the winter of 1984/5, England fared slightly better though they too suffered at the hands of a rampant West Indies team (who inflicted 5-0 “Blackwashes” in 1984 and in 1985/6).  This series showed two sides moving in opposite directions and because of the sporting theatre will live long in the memory.

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