On November 15, 1986, Ian Botham smashed 138 off 174 balls — his last century in Test match cricket — as England went on to win the Brisbane Test at the Gabba against all odds. The knock, in fact, had set the tone for the rest of the Ashes, which the visitors won up 2-1. Karthik Parimal revisits that memorable innings.
Dark cloud over Ashes trip
Ian Botham and controversies were seldom mutually exclusive. In early 1986, a fresh wave of media fury washed over his cricketing career, temporarily bringing it to a screeching halt. While the headlines kept shuffling between heroin, cocaine, pethidine and pot, the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) — bombarded by opinions vacillating from a life ban to a ban of 10 years — eventually decided to suspend him from all forms of cricket until the end of July that year for bringing the game into disrepute. As a result, he duly missed the series against India and a dark cloud hung over his participation in other upcoming fixtures, too.
After managing to evade one more controversy before the end of his ban, the way was cleared for his return to the Test side. While the media actively castigated Botham’s every move in the interim, the all-rounder, with due motivation from fellow Somerset teammate Viv Richards, smashed a century off 65 balls against Worcestershire and followed it up with a massive 175 against Northants in a John Player Sunday League match. Donning the English flannels against New Zealand, he announced his comeback by topping the list of leading wicket-takers in Test cricket. The feat evoked a comment from Graham Gooch along the following lines: “Blimey, Beef. Who writes your scripts?”
There were no more whispers of Botham missing the flight to Down Under.
The build-up to the Brisbane Test
Under new leadership, a sober and determined Botham embarked on the Holy Grail of all English tours. “Both the England captain, Mike Gatting, and the manager, Mickey Stewart, sought me out before the tour and told me that as far as they were concerned, bygones were bygones and I started under them with a clean slate. They weren’t expecting any trouble from me or because of me, and I was in full agreement with that,” writes Botham in his autobiography Head On.
With family by his side, Botham was mentally in a better shape. “My teammates saw and commented on how relaxed I was on that tour and that helped me make a real contribution to England’s Ashes campaign,” he further states in his book. Contribute he did. Even as the rest of the cavalry looked insipid during the warm-up fixtures, earning the famous (or infamous) comment from Martin Johnson in the Independent that “there were only three things wrong with this team: they can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field,” Botham struck scores of 86, 70, 48 and 40. This batting form of his was to set the tone for England in the first Test at Brisbane.
After the nightmarish first month, the English players gathered in Botham’s upgraded suite to savour the fine bottles of wine sent over by Lindeman’s. Once the night concluded, he laid down the law. ‘Right,’ he told his teammates. ‘The party’s over.’ On the first day, England, riding on Gatting, Bill Athey and AllanLamb, scampered to 198 for two before rain, interspersed with bad light, took 80 minutes off the final session. Commotion ensued the next morning as Lamb was out first ball and Athey followed three overs later with the score still untouched.
At 198 for four, Botham walked in with customary swagger. The bowler to greet him was Merv Hughes — who was playing his first Ashes Test at the time — and the duel between the two instantly bagged its own space in the limelight. As Botham began to flay Hughes and the rest of the attack to all corners of the ground, the Australian fielders grew restless and chirpier. Although Botham seldom refrained from giving it back in equal measure, he opined that the level of sledging Border’s men were operating at had grown so vicious that it was in danger of destroying friendly relations.
Despite Australia’s verbal assault, Botham kept pummelling their bowlers. Apparently, at one point, his batting partner at the other end, David Gower, walked down the wicket and said, “I should be telling you to calm down, but I’m having too much fun myself.” After Gower was out, debutant Phil DeFreitas played perfect second-fiddle to Botham, although Border’s field settings, too, considerably helped the two etch a fine partnership.
Underestimating DeFreitas’ ability with the bat, the Australian captain kept setting fields to give Botham a single, but the former thwacked a 71-ball 40. Soon, he was amongst the first in the long list of players to be hailed as the next Botham.
The momentous over
Botham, batting on 97, was expected to contend with Hughes’s searing pace to reach his three-figure mark. Border duly tossed the ball to his reputed soldier and the two squared off for what would be a momentous over in the history of the Ashes. The first ball from Hughes was deftly manoeuvred for two to move to 99. The next, a full-pitched delivery, was hit over the bowler’s head and Botham scampered for another two amidst the raucous applause to reach his 14th Test century. At this juncture, Channel Nine commentator Bob Willis aptly said, “People should savour every moment they can to watch this player; they only come once in a lifetime.”
Shedding all inhibitions after reaching the coveted landmark, Botham smashed the third delivery over deep square leg for a monstrous six. Helmetless, he hooked the fourth towards the mid-wicket fence for a boundary. The next ball was a repetition of the previous one and the last a thunderous drive over mid-on. Thus concluded a gigantic over, off which 22 runs had been scored. After adding a few more through the other bowlers, Botham’s innings came to an abrupt end.
His 138 comprised 13 fours and four sixes and his knock steered England from a not-so-fantastic position to a dominating first innings total of 456. Little did one expect it to be Botham’s last hundred in the Test arena.
Botham, Hughes and the banter
Ten years prior to this Test, when Botham was in Melbourne and Hughes was still a kid, the latter had asked the former for advice. A snarky Botham then replied, “The best advice I can give you is to take up tennis or golf instead.”
At the close of the second day’s play of the Brisbane Test, Hughes walked up to Botham and asked him what he reckoned now, to which pat came the reply from the English stalwart: “Know what, Merv? Considering I’ve just been smashing you all over the Gabba, I’d say it was a pretty good advice, wouldn’t you?”
“For a moment it looked as if he was going to take a swing at me, but then he burst out laughing, slapped me on the back and bought me a beer instead,” Botham fondly recollects in his autobiography.
Hughes, indeed, had taken the bashing in his stride. “He [Botham] took 22 off my over and the Guinness Book of records I think was 24 but I thought I’d got a moral victory because it was 24 off an eight ball over and mine was a six ball over,” he joked with the press.
Australia could muster just 248 in response and, after following on, bettered it marginally — owing to a hundred from Geoff Marsh — with 282. England, needing 75 to win, did so with seven wickets to spare.
The series was won 2-1 by the English unit, and Chris Broad’s three consecutive centuries notwithstanding, Border felt it was Botham’s carnage on the first day that tilted the scales against Australia. “The couple of hours that Botham batted was a key moment in the entire series. It set the tone for the tour,” he was quoted by The Telegraph.
Although Botham’s played for five more years, he failed to notch a single ton thereafter.
England 456 (Bill Athey 76, Mike Gatting 61, David Gower 51, Ian Botham 138; Steve Waugh 3 for 76, Chris Matthews 3 for 95, Merv Hughes 3 for 134) and 77 for 3 (Chris Broad 35*; Merv Hughes 2 for 28) beat Australia 248 (Geoff Marsh 56, Craig Matthews 56*; Graham Dilley 5 for 68) and 282 (Geoff Marsh 110; John Emburey 5 for 80, Phil DeFreitas 3 for 62) by 7 wickets.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)