Ian Botham is congratulated by his England team mates after dismissing Ray Bright of Australia. Botham’s final figures read 14-9-11-5 © Getty Images
Ian Botham is congratulated by his England team mates after dismissing Ray Bright of Australia. Botham’s final figures read 14-9-11-5 © Getty Images

August 2, 1981. For the second consecutive Test, an Ian Botham miracle converted a certain victory into defeat for the Australians. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when the great all-rounder picked up 5 for 1 in 28 balls.

The previous day had witnessed the royal wedding of Prince Charles and the gorgeous Diana Spencer. And judging by the din in the stands when the Test match began, it seemed that the wedding guests had rushed out of the St Paul’s Cathedral and flocked to Edgbaston. It was the noisiest Test match ever contested in England.

The strip looked superb, the outfield quick, the day was warm and the sky an expanse of gold and blue with a small patchwork of friendly tattered white. Kim Hughes took one look at the track — long known to be the best surface in England — and remarked that it looked good for 800. Mike Brearley had no hesitation in batting first. And yet, somehow it transpired to be the first Test match since 1934 in which no batsman scored a fifty.

On the second evening, there was a garden party at the house of the England physio Bernard Thomas. During dinner, Hughes confessed that he just hoped that the Australians did not have to chase 130 yet again. The scars of Headingley had not healed. According to the proverb, lightning does not strike twice at the same place, but NASA claims otherwise. Hughes was wary of another miracle, he peered gingerly ahead, apprehensive of another freakish Ian Botham act. Yet, all his misgivings could not quite stop England from pulling off another audacious heist, contriving to win after very convincing efforts at playing dead.

Low scoring exchanges

For just 45 minutes of the first morning, the game went according to the expected script. During this period Geoff Boycott and Brearley put on 29. And then suddenly it became a saga of struggling batsmen. Terry Alderman’s late outswing got Boycott, David Gower tried to hit the pace bowler over mid-on without opening his account, and just before lunch Graham Gooch snicked a pull off Ray Bright. By half past five, the English innings had wilted for 189, Brearley top scoring with 48. Running in from the Pressbox End, Alderman had taken 5 for 42.

It was from the same end that Brearley asked Chris Old to operate with the new ball. By the end of the day he had dismissed John Dyson and Allan Border with just 19 on the board.

The following morning, the England players claimed that the pitch was too fickle for comfort. It was dry, the surface becoming loose, balls keeping low, balls turning, batting an ordeal of a kind more expected in India. By the end of the day, the Australian batsmen agreed wholeheartedly.

The second day started under greyer skies and cooler breeze. Brearley changed his bowlers often and switched his fielders around, keeping his men busy and the Australians guessing. Bob Willis, fresh from his heroics at Leeds, rushed in with the pace of old. He bowled five bouncers at Hughes in a span of two overs, leading to a serious conference between umpires Dicky Bird and Don Oslear. Hughes responded with crisp, elegant boundaries — 7 of them in a score of 47. And then Old got him with one that kept disconcertingly low.

Debutant Martin Kent chipped in with 46, and extras contributed a whopping 44. Although England bowled with imagination and fielded brilliantly — running out Graeme Wood and Rodney Hogg — the Australians led by 69 by the time John Emburey brought about a quick end to the innings. By the time stumps were drawn, Dennis Lillee had removed Brearley in the gloom of the fading afternoon. The Australians were on top.

That Saturday dawned with bright sunshine and a large crowd expectantly gathered in the stands. Boycott greeted them to some characteristically cheerless batting, spending more than 3 hours for 29. It was the left-arm spin of Ray Bright that ran through the top order. Boycott was caught behind, Gower snapped up close in, Gooch and Peter Willey had their woodwork disturbed. There was no encore of excellence from Botham either as Lillee got him caught behind. England were six down with the lead inching to a mere 46.

Mike Gatting, squat and combative, and Old, gutsy and a hearty biffer, carried the score along to 154. But, when Bright bowled Gatting at 167, 8 wickets were down with the lead still under hundred.

But, Emburey, possessing the most inelegant but strangely effective sweep in the game, went after Bright as he turned them from outside the leg-stump. Wicketkeeper Bob Taylor stuck around for over an hour. The final total of 219 meant a target of 151, somewhat more than they were asked to make at Headingley. The prayers of Hughes, as heard in the party of the previous day, had not been quite answered , but things looked bright enough for Australia. In the last stages of the day, Old brought one back to trap Wood leg-before, but with 9 runs on the board, 9 wickets in hand, only 142 required to win, Australia were still the favourites.

The Miracle at Birmingham

Miracles, wrote a distinguished correspondent, like lightning, do not strike twice. Well, he was wrong. Most of the critics and experts had been proved wrong during the course of the match. By the end of Sunday, all those who had roasted the English batsmen for their performance on the first day were made to eat their words, washed down with the effervescent bubbly descriptions of their heroic deeds on the field.

In the morning Willis attempted a gallant repeat of his Leeds spell. According to Derek Hodgson, “he bowled as if the devil were at his heels.” Dyson was trapped leg-before. And when Hughes came in, Willis bounced.

The ball reared for the face and Hughes hooked, connecting with the middle of the bat, flat and hard, ending impeccably balanced on one leg, his posture the picture of perfection. Mike Smith on BBC gushed, “Ah, it’s a beautiful shot … But straight down that man’s throat. A beautiful looking stroke…” It went straight to John Emburey at long leg. A stroke of impetuous brilliance gone wrong, reducing the scoreboard to a distraught 29 for three.

After the game, Rod Marsh sat sobbing in the privacy of the dressing room, “I thought what might have happened if Hughes had not played a stupid hook shot when the Poms had two men stationed out in the deep. Christ, a captain is supposed to lead by example.” Well, Marsh himself had fallen to a hook down the throat of fine-leg at Headingley in similar circumstances, but then he was among those clutch of players infamous for their condemnation of the young skipper.

But, Australia crawled towards the target — in a somewhat catatonic manner. Border and Graham Yallop set up a rather stroke-less camp. By lunch Australia were again favourites. Yallop spent two hours for 30 gritty runs, taking the score to 87. Emburey got him in the end, but Border was joined by Kent, and the two stonewalled their way to 105. Only 46 more were needed and while the turn created some worries, Australia seemed to have wrapped things up.

As Emburey started a new over, Brearley signalled towards Peter Willey, asking him to limber up. He intended to introduce spin at both ends. And at this juncture a delivery from Emburey kicked up and took Border’s glove on the way to Gatting at bat-pad.

Marsh was in at 105 for 5, and Brearley, in a last gamble, changed his mind and called on a rather reluctant Botham from the Pressbox End.

There followed 28 deliveries from the Somerset all-rounder, a spectacular spell that made history repeat itself within the space of a dozen days. Botham, the weight of captaincy taken off his shoulders, could swing his arms to that breathtakingly nonchalant 149 not out at Headingley. Now, with the pressure off him, he ran in to bowl quicker than he had in many a month, pitching the ball full and straight.

The wreckage was commenced when Botham bowled one from wide of the crease, round the wicket, the ball spearing into Marsh. The wicketkeeper, for all his caustic criticism of Hughes, tried to hit the straight delivery across the line through mid-on. He failed to connect, and the middle-stump went for a tumble.

The next ball deviated late and into the batsman. Ray Bright tried his hardest to play it but was short on ability and fortune. It thudded into his pads low and blatantly adjacent. The finger went up.

Lillee came in and denied the hat-trick, but did not do much more. Here was another man of the Packer brigade, a castigating critic of Hughes the captain. He now flashed at a wide out-swinger. The edge flew thick and fast. Taylor moved across to grab it. It slipped away from his trusted glove, and he flung himself and caught it in front of the second slip on the second attempt. The score was 120 for 8.

A run later, it was the demise of Kent. The debutant had batted 68 minutes for 10, eschewing risk of every kind. And now, with a dearth of partners at the other end, the small target of 151 gaining in menace with every dismissal, he tried to force Botham through the on-side and missed the line. The stumps were rattled again and it was 121 for 9.

Alderman was one of nature’s endearing number elevens. The third ball he faced was straight and full, all that was needed to beat his rather confused bat. He played all over it, his baffled eyes turning to double check that the match had indeed been lost so soon and so suddenly. Botham rushed down the wicket and grabbed a stump. At 4.30 the startling spell of 5 for 1 in 28 deliveries had ended the extraordinary Test match. Botham’s final figures read 14-9-11-5.

Richie Benaud looked at the bemused Australian captain during the post-match presentation and produced one of his more colourful lines: “Hughes there, looking like he’s just been sandbagged.” Bob Taylor later remarked that Hughes looked like a “shell-shocked soldier … Not for the first time I found myself wondering how much respect he was given by the former Packer players.”

It should have been 3-0 in favour of Australia. Instead, Hughes found himself trailing 1-2, twice on the receiving end of that incredible freak of nature called Ian Botham. There was not much he could do, and hence spent the night dancing on a table at Bob Willis’s benefit function. He was not apologetic about the hook shot that brought about his downfall: “I’m a natural stroke-player. That time it didn’t come off.”

However, the many demons in his mind were captured in this conversation with Brearley, “I suppose me mum’ll speak to me. Reckon me dad will too. And me wife. But who else?”

“I admired his dignity,” Brearley observed later.

Brief scores:

England 189 (Mike Brearley 48; Terry Alderman 5 for 42) and 219 (Ray Bright 5 for 60) beat Australia 258 (Kim Hughes 47, Martin Kent 46; John Emburey 4 for 43) and 121 (Ian Botham 5 for 11) by 29 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 http://twiter.com/senantix)