Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

Ian Botham hooks Geoff Lawson for four during his epic 149 not out in the third Ashes Test match at Headingley in Leeds in 1981. Botham not only helped England avoid a near-certain innings defeat but also shepherded the tail to post a total that was good enough to beat Australia © Getty Images

July 21, 1981. For the very first time a Test match became uniquely and universally identifiable by the name of a suburb and two digits — Headingley ’81. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at that incredible heist pulled off by Ian Botham’s genius followed by the flop haired magic of Bob Willis.

Champagne and Humpty

When Bob Taylor fended one from Terry Alderman to Ray Bright, the seventh English wicket went down for 135. Ninety-two more were needed to make Australia bat again. On the fourth afternoon of the Headingley Test, the series was hurtling towards a 2-0 scoreline in favour of Australia. In the dressing room, Steve Rixon and Graeme Beard put champagne bottles in the bath and prepared to spread ice over them.

In the ground Graham Dilley, young, blond haired and blue helmeted, approached the wicket. Standing there was the man who had been the England captain till the previous Test. After ages, Ian Botham’s face looked stripped of tension, his beard casual and carefree, his smile wide and full of zest for life, his bat more prone to express his macabre spirit. He welcomed Dilley with the words “Let’s give it some humpty.”
Thus started the greatest miracle of modern times.

Worth a thousand

Even the turbulence normally surrounding the captaincy of Kim Hughes, with his relentless clashes with Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, seemed to have been relegated to the pages of the past. Winning does work wonders for a team. The close victory in the first Test, followed by the draw in the second which rang out the death knell for Botham’s captaincy, and now the near impregnable position in the third had turned Australia into a cohesive, well-knit unit.

Hughes had won the toss and batted — a decision arrived at after several inspections of the wicket in the company of Lillee and Marsh. The ball jagged off the wicket, in every possible way but with a degree of predictability. Rain washed out quite a bit of the first day’s play. But, John Dyson stood steadfastly for almost five hours to score 102, an innings full of character, rated by the batsman as the best of his life. Hughes himself grafted for four and a half hours, his characteristic adventurous strain restrained in a mental straightjacket, not one extravagant stroke off his bat, little sign of any chink in his armour but for one chance when in his sixties.

A week and a bit earlier, Botham had bagged a pair at Lord’s. It had been the last straw for his disturbed reign at the helm. After the final afternoon or the second Test, the all-rounder had made his quiet way out of the ground, he and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members avoiding eye contact with unspoken mutual agreement. The mantle of leadership had passed to the greying Mike Brearley of scholarly looks and plentiful theories.

Now Brearley tossed Botham the ball more often and continuously than the legend himself would have ever done as captain. On the second afternoon, Botham bowled 22.2 continuous overs right to the end of the Australian innings, his spell broken only by the tea interval. The marathon stint produced five for 48. Australia had been 332 for four with the stand between Hughes and Graham Yallop already 112 when Botham had struck for the first time. He brought one back to clobber the Australian captain on what is euphemistically called the groin. After the necessary period of recovery, Hughes, on 89, pushed the next ball back into the hands of the rejuvenated all-rounder. Botham quickly followed it up by dismissing Allan Border, Yallop, Geoff Lawson and Marsh. Hughes declared the innings at 401 for nine. “Four hundred is worth a thousand on this pitch,” the Australian captain remarked.

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

Ian Botham on way to a five-wicket haul © Getty Images

The collapse and the preview

It sure seemed so when England, 78 for three at lunch on the third day, fell away for 174. Lawson and Alderman used the conditions far better than the English bowlers. Bob Willis and Chris Old had bowled too wide on the off side, and Dilley had been all over the place. Now, Lawson bowled Geoff Boycott, hitting leg after the opener had moved too much to the off. David Gower, dropped at fourth slip off Lawson, fended the very next ball that reared to his face. Marsh leapt to take a fantastic catch.

Lillee got among the wickets as well. Only Botham counter-attacked with the gay abandon of a free spirit relieved of a hideously heavy burden. He plundered eight boundaries, one of them rather streakily skied over the covers. His 50 was scored off 50 balls, a small preview of the magnificent show to follow. It took an unplayable Lillee delivery to dismiss him, the snick giving Marsh the world record 264th dismissal, going past Alan Knott. It was the 74th occurrence of caught Marsh bowled Lillee. Twenty one more would follow before they would simultaneously bring the curtains down on their superb careers.

Hughes enforced follow-on. By the end of the day, Lillee had got Gooch for a duck. England stared down the barrel.

The day of miracle

Thus dawned the day of the miracle.

Boycott produced a superb display of defensive resistance, batting three and a half hours for 46. But the rest of the top order frittered away to Lillee and Alderman.

For a while Peter Willey delighted in stepping away and swishing the ball over the gully. And during that brief period, the awkward on-field dynamics of Australia was seen raising its ugly head.

As soon as the gutsy, bearded batsman arrived at the wicket, Lillee asked Hughes for a fly slip. The captain refused. Soon, a slash sailed through the vacant area for four. Lillee, moustache bristling, repeated his demand. Hughes repeated his refusal. The ball flew through that spot again. Lillee’s hands clamped down on his hips. He glared daggers at Hughes.

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

Rodney Marsh (right) is about to catch Ian Botham (center) off Dennis Lillee to break the then world record of Test catches © Getty Images

Marsh walked up from his position behind the wicket and advised that a fly slip would indeed be useful. Hughes gave in. Dyson was moved back from the slips to a deeper fly slip. Lillee pitched short, Willey cut. There was not enough room to free his arms. Dyson stood still as it flew towards him and his hands closed around the ball. The on-field drama was lost on Richie Benaud in the commentary box. “Superb captaincy. One of the best pieces of tactical thinking I’ve seen in a long time,” he gushed.

Mike Brearley agreed. “Such immediate rewards for intelligent and inventive captaincy are rare,” he wrote later. The truth, however, had many layers.

This brought Botham to the crease, his six wickets and fifty in the match perhaps reminding him of the phenomenal talent that oozed from all departments of his game.

He started with off-drives of classical elegance and tremendous power. He square drove with élan. A couple of balls were hit with the freedom that accompanies a lost cause, and they flew over the slips for four. At the other end, Alderman swung one back to trap Boycott leg before. It was 135 for seven. Graham Dilley walked in to join Botham at the wicket. The two proceeded to ‘give it a humpty.’

At lunch, Ladbrokes had offered 500-1 odds on Australia losing the Test.

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

The scoreboard at the Headingley ground on July 18, 1981 reveals the odds as England are priced at 500-1 to win the third Ashes Test against Australia. Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh bet on England as they were made to follow-on. England won by 18 runs © Getty Images

Lillee had felt that only a mug could let those odds go cold. He had punted £10. Marsh had been reluctant, but had ended up betting £5. Would they have done so if their buddy Greg Chappell had not decided to stay back in Australia and had been leading the side? Adrian McGregor, Chappell’s biographer, does not think so. “If they did it would be a big joke and Greg wouldn’t have been happy. He’d have thought it disloyal.” Of course Hughes had no illusions about the loyalty of the duo towards the captain. But, no one, including the captain, had any doubt of their commitment to the Australian cause. The bets were not given much consideration at that time. No one thought much about them. An Australian defeat was anyway well-nigh impossible.

In fact, the man behind the miracle, Ian Botham himself, had already checked out of his hotel. He now swung much in the vein of enjoying himself, with a strain of defeatism playing a minor role. Left-handed Dilley clouted swinging deliveries through the cover, quite a few going rather streakily and rather finer than intended. But, according to Christian Ryan, he often looked surprisingly like a Graeme Pollock doppelganger.

Botham himself drove majestically. And sometimes he left all stumps open and tried to clout swinging balls back over the heads of the bowlers. He connected about half of them, but never missed. Depending on whether it hit the middle or the thick edge the ball ended landing beyond the mid-off, mid-on or slip. Many pulls were played with the feet steadfastly stationary. One went up into the stratosphere off the splice, and Hughes ran back to retrieve it from behind fine third-man, the ball thrown back by a lad in a margarine anorak.

Fortune was outrageously in his favour. “Bloody lucky innings. I expected to get him virtually every ball,” Lillee later remarked. The bat, often swished like a windmill, always connected and sent balls either by intent or chance to corners of the ground where no fielders attended. It was a remarkable combination of enormous talent and prodigious luck, a confluence that takes place once in a century.

But, soon the fun and frolic took on serious proportions. At some unidentified moment, the innings reached the tipping point from where it became a serious effort at turning the tables. Fielders in the middle hardly realised when. They were more spectators than participants. All along they thought they would get a snick and soon would be uncorking the waiting champagne bottles. The field stayed up and the lofts landed in the vast unmanned country. Soon Botham stepped down the track to Alderman and lofted him high, handsome and straight, into the stands. And Richie Benaud described it from the commentary box: “Don’t even bother looking for that. It’s gone into the confectionery stall and out again.” This time the ace commentator had got it bang on.

With Dilley also punching the ball with aplomb, the deficit was wiped off. The Australian supporters and ex-cricketers, who had watched the two launch into a bizarre counter attack, had perhaps sported indulgent smiles at their efforts akin to that of the boy on the burning deck. Now the edges of those smiles tipped downwards. When the two players did not middle or miscue balls to vacant areas, they missed them altogether. Snicks were always on the cards, yet none resulted from either of the bats.  When Alderman finally bowled Dilley for 56, they had already put on 117 for the eighth wicket in just 80 minutes.
Chris Old came in, a handy batsman in the lower order and a good striker of the ball. And he took guard, with the corner of his eye watching Lillee, Marsh, Alderman and Hughes all signalling different fielders to go to different positions. The time was rife for more mischief. England were just 25 runs ahead, but even Old was not inclined to stage a battle for survival. Botham continued his innings of genius and charmed life. Old swung at whatever he received.

Sixty seven were added between Botham and Old, and the heroic innings from the all-rounder had now moved into the three figures. The cheers were loud, echoes of gladdened hearts. By now Botham knew he was on to something big, but was not keen to change his methods that had borne unexpected fruit. When Lawson yorked Old for a 31-ball 29, England led by just 92. Bob Willis walked in, a conventional No 11, with that curious ‘pulling the blinds’ stroke that took the bat horizontally across the crease. And Botham continued to plunder the bowling for another 32 runs that evening. Not many Australians thought about defeat, but with England finishing the day at 351 for nine, 124 ahead, the chances had been hauled from the realms of impossibility to a faint but tangible threat.

That evening, England’s wicketkeeper Bob Taylor made his way to the Australian dressing room with his arms full of bats to be autographed. The greeting rang out: “F*** off with your f***ing bats.” Despair was still a long way off, but irritated exasperation had set in. But the Australian media was still optimistic and behind Hughes. Frank Cook of the Sydney Sun talked with the Australian captain about the inevitability of an Australian victory. He underlined that the success would stop the Board from reappointing Greg Chappell as captain when the maestro returned to international cricket. Hughes agreed, “I don’t think they’d dare.”

The words seemed to ring true when Willis was dismissed early in the morning. Botham ran off the ground with 149 not out, made from 148 balls with 27 fours and a six. A miracle of an innings that will be talked as long as cricket is played.

The Willis wreckage

As the Australian openers walked out to knock off the 130 runs for a regulation win, Brearley pondered about his opening bowlers. And he punted for Dilley and Botham, following the old adage of throwing the ball to the men who had got the runs. Besides, young Dilley could not be expected to start his spell when the match was tense and there were few runs to play with.

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

Bob Willis in action during his match-winning second innings haul of eight for 43 © Getty Images

It did not really work at first. Botham started with a long-hop that Greame Wood hit for four. The second was a half-volley which went for another boundary. In the third over, he bowled yet another half-volley. Wood flashed at it and it went to Taylor. Only Botham appealed, and the finger went up. ‘Must have hit some footmarks,’ Hughes said later.

At the other end, Dilley was proving expensive. So, in the sixth over on came Willis. “Faster and straighter, right?” asked the bowler with those sunken eyes and that mop of hair. Brearley nodded.

Willis ran up the hill, against the breeze, bowled well enough but without success or threat. Trevor Chappell and Dyson were beaten once in a while, but batted on without alarm. Important runs were nudged here and there, in ones and twos. The target being small, a third-man and a fine-leg were stationed right from the start, preventing edges and snicks from going for too many over the fast outfield.

Willis was getting tired. “Too old for that,” he moaned, asking for a go from the other end. Brearley refused. The bowler grumbled and carried on. As Old bowled the next over, Brearley asked Botham and Taylor for their opinion. They thought it would be wise to put Willis on from the end he preferred. The captain changed him over to the Kirkstall Lane End.

Willis came charging in, with a degree of enthusiasm that contrasted sharply with the 56 for one on the scoreboard. A ball rose from short of good length, rearing for Chappell’s head. The helpless protective parry was taken by Taylor.

Hughes came in, circumspect, slightly concerned, playing for lunch. Eight balls passed without a run from his blade. And then, the over before the break, he stood heavy-footed, pushing tentatively away from the body. With runs and wickets already in his immense kitty, Botham now dived to take it low down in the slips. The Australian captain walked back for a nine-ball duck that would haunt him forever.

Yallop came in to see off the few balls till lunch, and got a nasty one off the third. Mike Gatting caught it with a smart dive at short-leg. The players finally retired at 58 for four. There was hope in the English camp and panic in the Australian. As England used the break to think of how the remaining batsmen would play, the visitors barely picked at their food.

At the other end, Old was accuracy itself. Till Ray Bright took him for two wild boundaries later in the innings, he supported Willis splendidly with a spell of eight overs that cost just 11 runs. After lunch, always fancying himself against left-handers, he swung one in viciously and rattled Allan Border’s stumps for a duck.

Willis continued to tear in from the Kirkstall Lane End. The ball was kept short of length, often rearing up alarmingly. Dyson, who had batted with poise and determination all through the match, now hooked and sent it to Taylor off his glove. Marsh attempted to hit his way out of trouble, pulled from outside the off-stump. Dilley ran back at fine leg and took a fine catch just inside the ground.

Now umpire David Evans asked Willis not to bowl bouncers at Lawson. Brearley was surprised. According to him Lawson was a competent batsman. It did not really matter, though. A short of good length ball moved away and Lawson edged it to Taylor. It was the sixth wicket for Willis in six overs. The score stood at 75 for eight.

It was the experience of Lillee, appended to the limited skill that provided another twist to this extraordinary match. Willis continued to pitch short and Lillee chose the way of death or glory. The slash went streakily over the slips for four. Brearley moved Gooch to a fly slip. Lillee slashed again, the bat horizontal and brave. The ball curiously found the almost non-existent gap between Gooch at fly slip and Dilley at third-man for another boundary. He cut a third one, this time with confidence, and it went for yet another boundary. At the other end Bright clubbed two fours off Old, risky but effective, high on the leg side. Suddenly, within four overs, the match had changed again. Australia, with a flurry of fours, had added 35. The score was 110 for eight. Twenty remained to get.

With Lillee opting for the slash, Gatting ran towards his captain. “Tell Bob to bowl straight at Dennis, it doesn’t matter what length.” Brearley found the message a sound one and passed it to his fast bowler. Willis ran in and bowled on the middle stump and Lillee decided to drive. The stroke was late and it was scooped in the air. Gatting ran in from mid-on and flung himself forward to catch it inches above the ground.

With Bright taking Old for runs, now Brearley brought Botham on. Twice the outswinger was pitched perfectly. Twice Alderman edged. Twice it went fast and low to Old at third slip. And twice the chances were grassed.

But once again it did not matter. From the other end Willis charged in and sent Bright’s middle stump cartwheeling. He raised both his fists heavenward and broke into a victory run. England had triumphed by 18 runs, a miracle of a result. The second team to pull off a win after being asked to follow-on — after —Bobby Peel had bowled the Australians out at Sydney in 1894-95. The feat has been repeated only once since then — when VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh scripted that epic win at the Eden in 2001. Curiously, the Australians have been at the receiving end on all three occasions.

Ashes 1981: Ian Botham, Bob Willis mastermind England’s great escape at Headingley

As expectd, Ian Botham is declared Man of the Match for his wondrous all-rounder displays © Getty Images

We didn’t do much wrong except lose

So, England had pulled one back — the rubber poised 1-1 after three Tests. And this momentum sparked off by Botham’s incredible innings would see the hosts winning for the rest of the series.

Kim Hughes was gracious during the presentation. To rousing cheers from the crowd, his words rang out noble and generous, “I’m proud the Australian team has been part of one of the greatest Tests of all. Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t win, but we know we gave immense enjoyment.”

However, when pressmen harangued him about tactics, he lost his equanimity. To be fair he hardly did anything wrong. He did not call on Bright to send down his left arm spinners till the score had crossed 300, but then, Bright’s flat left arm spinners were not exactly Shane Warne material. There were indeed a lot of hindsight propelled theories about the merits of enforcing follow-on, but such results take place once in a century because of a reason. They are miracles. No captain can really devise a strategy to counter them, much like no field could be set for the many productive top edges from the flashing blade of Botham.

Brief scores:

Australia 401 for 9 decl (John Dyson 102, Kim Hughes 89, Graham Yallop 58; Ian Botham 6 for 95) and 111 (Bob Willis 8 for 43) lost to England 174 (Ian Botham 50; Dennis Lillee 4 for 49) and following on 356 (Geoff Boycott 46, Ian Botham 149*, Graham Dilley 58; Terry Alderman 6 for 135) by 18 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at