Ashes 1981: Ian Botham smashes the final nail in Australia’s coffin at Old Trafford

Ian Botham (with stump) after England won the fifth Test against Australia at Old Trafford in the 1981 Ashes series. Botham scored 118 runs in the second innings © Getty Images

On August 15, 1981, Ian Botham scripted his third miracle in as many Test matches as he bludgeoned the Australian bowling attack to guide England on their way to a series win. Jaideep Vaidya goes back in time to revisit the carnage.

It had been a tumultuous 12 months as England captain for Ian Botham, after he took over the reins from Mike Brearley in the summer of 1980. England faced only two teams, West Indies and Australia, in this period over 12 games with Botham at the helm, and failed to win a single Test. The West Indies were of course almost an unconquerable side at the time, and credit could be given to England for the fact that they, under Botham, did not suffer ‘blackwashes’ as had been the norm earlier. A 0-1 loss at home and 0-2 defeat away did not make for particularly bad reading against the best team in the world. England also played three matches — the Centenary Test at Lord’s in 1980 and the first two of six Ashes Tests in the summer of 1981 — against Kim Hughes‘s Australians under Botham; and by the time the second Test at Lord’s was done with, his record as captain read four losses and eight draws.

Just 24 when he took over as captain, Botham was already one of the most important members of the England team and one of the first names on the team sheet. An exciting all-rounder, he had already hit six centuries and taken 139 wickets in a three-year Test career. His future seemed bright when he took over the side from Brearley after the latter stepped down, with the erstwhile Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) hoping for a successful tenure for both player and team. However, at the end of the Lord’s Test in ’81, Botham could only boast of one half-century and 35 wickets in 12 matches as skipper.

Despite the poor form, Botham never doubted his ability to perform as both player and captain. He would occasionally get on the wrong side of some of his teammates due to his temper, bluntness, and in-your-face attitude, which was quite unlike what England was used to under Brearley who was the safety net. The team had become demoralised after the twin series defeats to the West Indies, and Brearley was later to admit in a column for The Guardian that “the pressure had got to [Botham], and England had lost the superb qualities of their best player.” There were arguments aplenty that Botham’s form was suffering due to his captaincy, and that lifting the burden off him would be for the best of the team and him personally. But Botham did not believe that diagnosis one bit. For him, it was just a matter of one game.

“It was true that I’d been struggling for runs in the last few Tests, but everyone has a bad patch at one time or another, and I was in the batting form of my life for Somerset,” he wrote in his autobiography Head On. “In my view I’d come good sooner or later, and whatever the causes of my loss of form for England, it had nothing to do with the captaincy. I was still young and learning on the job, but I’d grow into the captain’s role over the next year or so… providing I was given the time.”

However, the outside world did not concur with Botham. In an interview for the Sunday Mirror, Ray Illingworth said that Botham was “overrated, overweight and overpaid. He should be dropped from the team.” Cricket journalist Simon Wilde wrote in his book Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory that supporting Botham as captain was one of the Brearley’s biggest mistakes. The rest of the British media weren’t so subtle: one of the most popular headlines in the papers at the time was ‘BOTHAM MUST GO’, which was flashed across his face at Lord’s by the MCC faithful, as he trudged back to the long room after his second consecutive duck. “For once the tabloids and I were in full agreement,” wrote Botham, but that was more due to the fact that the TCCB had announced that the future of his captaincy would be decided on a game-by-game basis, which didn’t go down too well with his pride.

After the Lord’s Test, Botham finally put in his papers. “I could either continue, limping from game to game until the selectors pulled the plug on me, or I could go out with dignity on my own terms,” he wrote. It didn’t help the situation when chairman of selectors Alec Bedser called a press conference immediately after the resignation and announced that they would have sacked him anyway.

So, when the two teams took to the field in Headingley for the third Test, not many local fans expected anything less than an Australian win. The mood got even more sombre after Australia piled on 401 for nine declared on the board, before reducing England to 87 for five when Botham walked in. The gutsy batsman that he was, Botham decided to have a swing and raced along to a 54-ball half-century before gloving a Dennis Lillee delivery. England were bowled out for 174. In the second innings, after Hughes asked England to follow on, the haplessness in the batting continued as the hosts found themselves at 135 for seven, when bookmakers Ladbrokes offered 500-1 for an England win. Only Lillee and Rod Marsh were foolish enough to have a punt.

What happened then would go down in history as one of the brightest, most memorable and most incredible of chapters in English cricket. Botham, along with tailender Graham Dilley, put on an invaluable 117 for the eighth wicket that helped England to what was earlier an inconceivable total of 356. Botham had daringly slogged his way to an unbeaten 149 — his highest Test score — on a seamer-friendly pitch, but Australia’s target was a good 19 runs lesser than his individual score. The game was still in the visitors’ hands. It took a sensational spell of eight for 43 by Bob Willis, who was not even certain of making the match, to realise what was a fairytale for the home side. Opener John Dyson top-scored with 34 as Australia were bowled out for Nelson, after losing seven wickets for 19 runs.

With the series tied at 1-1 going into the fourth Test at Edgbaston, it was still anyone’s to call. However, England clearly had the psychological advantage. This was apparent at Edgbaston when Australia squandered a commanding position yet again in their second innings chase. Set another lowly target of 151, Australia were cruising along at 105 for four, with Allan Border going strong on 40, to despicably succumb to 121 all-out. The destructor in chief was, again, Botham who decided to use his bowling traits this time around to snatch his team a second improbable win. Botham’s final analysis in the innings read five for 11 in 14 overs: all five of those wickets had come for the cost of just one run in a space of 28 balls.

‘BOTHAM MUST GO’ soon changed to ‘BOTHAM’S MIRACLE’ in the headlines thought up by the fickle British press. In a matter of two games, Botham had wiped away all the bad memories from the last 12 months and had become a national hero. England were, unbelievably, leading the Ashes 2-1 with two Test matches to go. “The psychological edge that we — and I — had got over them at Headingley was proving an insuperable barrier for them,” wrote Botham. “When we went to Old Trafford for the fifth Test, the Aussies looked in the same shell-shocked state.”

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham smashes the final nail in Australia’s coffin at Old Trafford

Ian Botham (second from right in bottom row) with England teammates before the beginning of the fifth Ashes 1981 Test at Old Trafford. England won the match by 103 runs to go 3-1 up with one match left © Getty Images

Now, it was the turn of the Australian press to dig their daggers into their side, and the players looked like they very much felt the sharp metal through their spines as they arrived in Manchester. It was almost as if they wanted to forfeit the series and head back home as soon as possible. They got a boost when England won the toss and were reduced to 175 for nine, with Botham ludicrously scoring a duck, while Lillee and Terry Alderman took four wickets apiece. However, Paul Allott scored a fine half-century and added 56 for the last wicket with Willis to take England to a respectable 231. Willis returned to torment his guests as he went on to take four wickets himself, while Botham took three, as Australia could muster only 130.

Alderman tore into the England top half on Day Three, August 15, taking all five wickets when Botham walked in at 104 for five. England’s lead was above 200, but they were still not safe. But Botham was in the best of spirits. “I had a good feeling as I walked out to bat — some days you just feel that way,” he wrote. At the other end was Chris Tavaré, who had been brought into the squad to solve a crisis at No 3 but had been hounded by the press for his crawling rate of scoring in a brief career. However, he had the full support of his dressing room.

“‘Tav’ had been told to just stay there, closing up one end while the others played their strokes. It can’t have been any fun for him at all — he was a natural stroke player — any more than it was for the spectators, but he performed his appointed task to perfection.” Tavaré had taken four and three-quarters of an hour to make 69 in the first innings. In the second, with Botham breezing along at the other end, he was even slower. He scored 78, which took him just over seven hours, including the slowest half-century in Test cricket.

However, Botham brilliantly complemented his teammate at the other end as he waited for Australia to take the second new ball, after which he launched into Lillee and Alderman. Three times was a bouncer from Lillee, heading straight for Botham’s cranium, hooked over fine-leg for six. One particular delivery which was full and wide was absolutely hammered over the bowler’s head at double the pace with which it had been delivered. Botham went berserk as he smashed 66 off just eight overs before tea, before reaching his hundred with his fifth six of the innings — a sweep off left-arm spinner Ray Bright.

Botham annihilated the Australian attack, hitting half a dozen maximums — a record in England-Australia encounters — before eventually falling to Alderman for 118, which had come off just 102 deliveries. It was different from his ton at Headingley in the sense that it was not a slog fest. It was clean, pure, brutal hitting. “I can only remember playing one false shot in my entire innings, an inside edge that flashed past the stumps on its way to the fine-leg boundary.” He was later to describe it as “probably the best innings I ever played”.

England were finally bowled out for 404, thereby setting an almost impossible target of 505, even on a pitch that looked to be getting better as the days progressed. Australia did not give up easily: Border, with a broken finger, and Graham Yollop both scored tons, but it was a mountain too steep to climb in the end as they were bowled out for a commendable 402, which would have been more than sufficient to win any other match.

But Australia’s villain again was Botham, who capped a remarkable three Tests as non-captain. With the win in Manchester, England sealed the series 3-1 and claimed the coveted urn, with the sixth and final Test becoming nothing more than academic. But Botham was greedy for more as he went on to scalp his 200th Test wicket at The Oval in a match that looked to have been played in a parallel universe compared to how the rest of the series had gone, resulting in an anti-climactic draw.

From ‘BOTHAM MUST GO’ to ‘BOTHAM’S MIRACLE’, and with the culmination of the series, Botham’s cult status was confirmed. The 1981 Ashes would forever enter the England cricketing folklore and go on to be called ‘BOTHAM’S ASHES’; and deservedly so.

The haunting which Australia, who could so easily have been 3-0 up, suffered is perhaps best summed up by Border’s own painful words in the last paragraph in the chapter dedicated to the series in his autobiography: “You try not to think too much about the 1981 series, but it keeps on recurring. You cannot get out of your mind the plain fact that you lost a series you should have won. Personally, I am haunted by the fact that the Australian curse was ravaged by a mate of mine. A bloke named Ian Botham.”

Brief scores:

England 231 (Chris Tavaré 69; Dennis Lillee 4 for 55, Terry Alderman 4 for 88) and 404 (Chris Tavaré 78, Ian Botham 118; Terry Alderman 5 for 109) beat Australia 130 (Martin Kent 52; Bob Willis 4 for 63, Ian Botham 3 for 28) and 402 (Graham Yallop 114, Allan Border 123; Bob Willis 3 for 96) by 103 runs.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)