Graham Dilley: A tragic tale of an Ashes hero

Graham Dilley, a tall and strikingly good-looking blonde, was England’s Ashes-winning paceman. Ironically, his best effort in Tests is remembered for his role as a batsman in an epic Test © Getty Images

Graham Dilley, born May 18, 1959, was England’s Ashes-winning fast bowler who Clive Lloyd once thought good enough to be the ‘fastest white bowler in the world’. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the life of the tall, blonde and handsome bowler from Dartford, who is probably best remembered for one epic innings with the bat.

One of the first things you would think of looking at Graham Dilley in the prime of his youthful exuberance was his unabashedly striking good looks. With a blonde mop of hair that waved around in the wind in his run-up, which was rather peculiar as it started almost at mid-off and arced into the bowler’s crease, Dilley was a handsome sight right out of the movies.

With a rangy frame of 6’4″ he would culminate his run-up with a high-arm action along with giving the batsman a full view of the soul of his left shoe in his jump, as if he were asking the batsman to count the spikes on it. It would appear as if he were putting severe stress on his groin, and this was confirmed later on when his career was cut short due to injuries. He was fast too, so much so that West Indian captain Clive Lloyd once called him the fastest white bowler in the world when England visited the Caribbean in 1981. It was thus quite surprising that Dilley, or ‘Picca’, as he was more fondly called, went on to play just 41 Tests and 36 One Day Internationals (ODIs).

Born in Dartford, Kent, Dilley made his First-Class debut for his home county against Cambridge University aged only 18. It wasn’t the best of starts as he went wicketless and had to wait till the next season to get another chance. His next game was against the touring Pakistan team in 1978, where he failed to make a breakthrough yet again. However, the stars were to align his way eventually as he grabbed seven wickets against Middlesex and helped Kent to a six-wicket victory.

In November 1979, Dilley made his ODI debut against the West Indies in Sydney during the World Series Cup. After being handed the new ball, he struck in his very third over, taking the wicket of the great Desmond Haynes. A month later, aged 20, he was to become the youngest Test player for England in 30 years when he made his debut against Australia at Perth. He took three wickets in his first Test, including that of Dennis Lillee which coincidentally made for amusing reading on the scorecard: “Lillee c Willey b Dilley 19”.

In 1980, Dilley was overlooked for the first two home Tests against West Indies but made it for the remaining three. As luck would have it, most parts of those three Tests were washed out, but Dilley made the little time he spent on the field count, taking 11 wickets in three innings that ensured his seat on the flight to the Caribbean for the return series that winter. Even though England lost that four-Test series 0-2, Dilley’s 10-wicket haul earned him Lloyd’s praise and kept him in the side for the 1981 Ashes — a series that would have an enormous impact on his career.

With 12 wickets in the first two Tests at Nottingham and Lord’s, Dilley was an automatic choice for the Headingley Test, which marked the return of Mike Brearley as captain. He took two wickets after Australia chose to bat, but couldn’t prevent the visitors from putting up 401 on the board. He was even more helpless as England were bowled out for 174 in their reply and asked to follow on. By the time Dilley walked out to bat in England’s second innings on the fourth afternoon, England were on the brink of an innings defeat at 135 for seven, still trailing by 92. However, at the other end was a sanguine Ian Botham, who apparently told the nervous Dilley, “Let’s give it some humpty.”

Those five little words from Botham’s mouth worked like magic and flicked a switch on inside Dilley that he himself perhaps didn’t know of.  Dilley scored 22 of the pair’s first 27 runs and went on partner Botham for 80 defiant minutes for a 117-run stand that took England past Australia’s score. Dilley scored 56 before playing on to Terry Alderman, but not before helping England on their way to a lead of 130 that proved sufficient enough for Bob Willis to defend. Willis took eight for 43 as the Australians were bowled out on Nelson to give the hosts an incredible victory.

Graham Dilley: A tragic tale of an Ashes hero

Graham Dilley on way to scoring 56 in the 1981 epic Ashes Test between England and Australia at Headingley, Leeds © Getty Images

Speaking to the Birmingham Post on the 30th anniversary of that spectacular win, Dilley had said, “The game was over and we’d lost, time to pack your bags and go home. Skipper Mike Brearley gave me no instructions, so I asked Ian what we should do. The pitch was very difficult and he said that we wouldn’t survive long just blocking, so we might as well have a swing if the ball was in the right area.”

While Botham was the Man of the Match for his all-round effort (six for 95 and 149 not out), Botham wouldn’t have got to his century had Dilley not confidently swung his bat around. Unfortunately, YouTube has no footage of that partnership, particularly Dilley’s stubborn and refreshing knock. Here’s how Wisden described it: “As Botham’s innings quickly gained momentum, the left-handed Dilley’s method was simply to plant his front foot around leg stump and swing cleanly. Sometimes he missed, more often he made thunderous contact.” For the young fans, Brearley has a succinct comparison: “As a batsman he was not unlike Stuart Broad.”

Dilley’s 56 was not even his last contribution to the match. In the fourth innings, he took a crucial catch on the boundary — much to the surprise of his captain and teammates — to dismiss Rodney Marsh, giving Willis the fifth of the eight wickets. Describing that catch, Dilley had said, “I can’t remember much about the ball coming towards me, but I remember taking the catch and then checking how close I was to the rope. Some players ran towards Bob, but then some of the slips came over to me. Botham arrives and the first thing he tells me is that, as it was in the air, Brearley, seeing that I was under it, exclaimed, ‘Oh God, it’s Picca’.”

Headingley 1981 marked the first time since 1894–95 that a team won a match after following on. To the young and uninitiated, this was a win as epic as Kolkata 2001, and is still fondly remembered by English fans. However, quite remarkably, Dilley was dropped from the fourth Test at Edgbaston despite his heroics with the bat. Dilley even expected it to happen: “I was picked as a bowler but hadn’t performed with the ball all series so I knew this would be my last game. If it had been me taking eight wickets then it would have been the best thing ever, but as it was two weeks later I was bowling for Kent Second XI against The Army, while Botham was taking five for 11.”

Following his Headingley exploits, Dilley played in the 1983 World Cup, before a neck injury forced him out of the game for a year. He returned to playing for Kent in 1985 and even had a brief stint at Natal in South Africa. In 1986, he took 63 First-Class wickets and earned an England recall. The period between 1986 and 1988 was Dilley’s purple patch, where he took 83 Test wickets at an average of 26.43, and was regarded by many as England’s best fast bowler. He took his first five-wicket haul in the first of the Ashes Tests at Brisbane in the Australian summer of ’86-87, which buoyed his team onto another memorable series triumph. The next winter, when England toured New Zealand, Dilley recorded the best bowling figures of his career, ripping through the Kiwi line-up with six for 38 at Christchurch. He finished the series with 15 wickets at an average of 14.

Dilley left Kent for Worcestershire in 1987 and, along with his dear pal Botham, helped them win four trophies in three years, including successive championships in 1987 and 1988. In 1988, Dilley played his last ODI, against the West Indies at his adopted home of Headingley. The following year, he was to play his last Test against, who else but, Australia at Edgbaston, ending his career with 138 wickets at an average of 29.78. Dilley’s international career was cut short when he joined Mike Gatting’s rebel army to play in South Africa. Most of that squad never played for England again.

After playing for Worcestershire for a few more years, Dilley retired from all forms of cricket in 1992. This second innings was no fairytale, unlike Headingley. Due to his leaving Kent for Worcestershire, Dilley was denied any benefit from his first county. He was further hit financially by the two divorces that he underwent. Dilley took up coaching, which began at Cheltenham College, went on to the England women’s team, before culminating at Loughborough University, where he helped the likes of Monty Panesar to emerge as international cricketers.

However, when cancer took Dilley’s life in October 2011, the Daily Mail was to report: “Graham Dilley, one of the England cricketers who won the Ashes in 1981, was penniless when he died in October. Probate records reveal he left nothing in his Will once debts and outstanding affairs were settled. He signed on the dole in 1996 when coaching work dried up and even sold his cricket blazers to raise cash.”

Loughborough University’s Guy Jackson, who was the executor of Dilley’s estate, said, “He led a frugal and reclusive life when not on the field. His flat was in negative equity. Once everything was settled there were no positive funds left.”

It was a sad tale of a one-time hero who, it seemed, was left to rot by the cruelty of the system. However, Dilley put the blame on no one but himself. In 2001, he had said, “You can make it sound tragic, a sportsman who’s been kicked in the teeth. But that’s not the truth. I made a few bad decisions and suffered the consequences.”

Speaking at Dilley’s memorial service, Botham said of his former teammate: “I’ve got so many fond memories of him. He ran in to bowl in the Caribbean, first ball, and the heel fell off his boot. Typical Graham, he’s only brought one pair with him on an England tour so there was panic there, but he was a fantastic cricketer who had a lot of talent.

“He was plagued with injuries, his neck and knees, which probably stopped him playing a lot more for England, but on his day he was the best. I had a lot of great times with him. He had a great sense of humour, he always wanted to be part of the party and join in. He was a good bloke to be around. He was quite quiet and reserved, he wasn’t a great social person until you got to know him, but then he was the life and soul of the party. It’s a very sad day.”

Fortunately, even after his death, Dilley will always be remembered for thwarting the Aussies with his blade at Headingley. As Mike Selvey, writing for the Guardian, put it, “Nothing that he had done before, from the moment he made his Test debut as the youngest Englishman for 30 years, until the day he retired from competitive cricket — not even the five for 68 he took in Brisbane in the winter of 1986-87 that catalysed a victory in match and Ashes series — would ever topple Headingley from the pinnacle of his achievements. It remains one of the most celebrated passages in the history of British sport.”

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber )