In the summer of 1981 a combination of spiralling unemployment and racial tension had led to riots in Brixton, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool, the number out of work had risen to 2.5 million, while The Specials’ haunting anthem Ghost Town topped the charts highlighting the sense of sheer desperation across much of the country.
Things weren’t going much better in the cricket either with England, having lost the three-match ODI series against the Aussies, trailing 1-0 after the first Ashes test at Trent Bridge as the pressure grew on captain Ian Botham - if ever a nation needed a sporting lift it was now, but few could have foreseen just what the next few weeks would deliver.
The Australians arrived in England for their ’81 Ashes tour without batsman and captain Greg Chappell, who had decided to take a break from cricket due to family commitments, with Kim Hughes leading the tourists in his absence. And with Terry Alderman taking 4/68 in England’s first innings, and then 5/62 in the second the Aussies convincingly won their first test at Trent Bridge since the ‘Invincibles’ Tour of 1948, there was even talk of a series whitewash.
Although the second Test ended in a draw the result did little to revive England’s spirits, especially those of their beleaguered skipper who endured the ignominy of scoring a pair at Lord’s and as he walked up to the Members Pavilion the silence he was greeted with was deafening. As a result the English selectors decided to replace Botham as skipper and recalled Mike Brearley to the captaincy, a move which proved to be a masterstroke and changed pretty much everything for the remainder of that summer.
Initially, though, it looked like a case of more of the same as, in the Third Test at Headingly, Australia made 401, before ripping through the English batting line-up to dismiss them for just 174; needless to say Australian skipper Kim Hughes had little hesitation in asking the hosts to follow on.
Such was England’s plight that when they found themselves 135/7 in their second innings, bookmakers Ladbrokes were offering odds of 500-1 for them to do the unthinkable and win the match – a price which, as legend would have it, some of the players actually decided to take.
Relieved of his duties as captain, Botham played with the shackles off and took out the frustrations of the first two Tests on the Australian bowlers, making 149 not out and England made 356; leaving the Australians needing 130 to win the match. Bowling like a man possessed England paceman Bob Willis, sensing that his England Test career could be on the line, charged in and made light work of an Australian outfit who needed a pretty modest target to all but seal the series.
Willis took eight wickets for 43 and ensured Australia fell short of their total by just 18 runs, eventually being bowled out for 111; only the second time ever in the history of Test cricket that a side that has followed on end up winning the game. The Australians were so demoralised by the defeat at Headingley that they lost the next Test at Birmingham, with Botham taking an incredible five wickets for 11 runs with the ball in the second innings as England squeaked home by just 29 runs to lead the six-game series 2-1.
In the fifth Test at Old Trafford Botham overcame the disappointment of a first innings duck to score 118 runs in his second visit to the crease while also taking a further five wickets for 116 runs ably assisted by that man Willis again who chipped-in with seven as England took an unassailable and hugely unpredicted 3-1 series lead.
With the Sixth Test at the Oval ending in a draw England had done the unthinkable and come back from the sporting dead to clinch the Ashes in the most remarkable way imaginable while the country had a new hero to lift the nations’ spirits just when it needed it most. The 1981 Ashes series had witnessed a spectacular resurrection in the career of Botham, and the fortunes of the English team while still inspiring players today ahead of each meeting with the old enemy of Australia.
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 01/08/19