A look back at ‘Botham’s Ashes’ and the first ‘miracle of Headingley’

For almost three decades, the events of the 1981 Test series between England and Australia have held an unimpeachable place in the cricketing landscape.

For English fans, it represents a magical moment of triumph in adversity, for Australians a nagging sore that never quite healed. For neutrals it has long provided hope for many an unlikely ‘what if’ story. At its heart stood Sir Ian Botham.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look back at ‘Botham’s Ashes’.

A new low

It started badly but the 1981 Ashes
It started badly but the 1981 Ashes

The 51st Ashes series began in inauspicious fashion for the man who would later take the entire contest by the scruff of the neck. Botham had been struggling as both player and captain leading into the series and promptly oversaw a four-wicket defeat at Trent Bridge as the tourists seized the initiative in a low-scoring game where ball taunted bat. At Lord’s the star all-rounder was a shadow of himself, dismissed for a duck in each innings in a draw that brought him to the cusp of being sacked. In the end he pre-empted the decision, falling on his sword and briefly throwing his own future in the air.

Brearley’s back

Botham (left) was revitalised by Brearley (right).
Botham (left) was revitalised by Brearley (right).

The England dressing room was not lacking in strong characters at the time – containing past or future captains in Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting, David Gower and Bob Willis – but the decision to tempt Botham’s predecessor, Mike Brearley, out of retirement proved inspired. He brought calmness, respect and authority to a sinking ship and, even more importantly, persuaded Botham to commit. Brearley’s ability to turn a jaded skipper into an ebullient match-winner was about to pay off in spades.

The ‘miracle of Headingley’

Botham hits out at Headingley (PA Archive)
Botham hits out at Headingley (PA Archive)

While Botham’s form immediately bounced back – six wickets in the first innings at Leeds and 50 with the bat – England still seemed hopelessly outmatched as they were made to follow-on with a 227-run deficit. When Gooch fell early the now unforgettable odds were flashed on the scoreboard, Brearley’s men priced at a notional, almost spiteful 500/1. Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh were among those who were tempted to part with a few pounds (£10 and £5 respectively), inspired more by mischievousness than entrepreneurial spirit. The bookmakers looked safe when Graham Dilley joined Botham at 137 for seven, their side still 92 adrift, but the hopelessness of the situation inspired one of the most remarkable displays of hitting ever seen. Botham finished 149 not out, with 27 fours and a six to conjure a glimmer of hope.

Big, bad Bob

Botham’s defiance had set up the equation – a modest chase of 130 – but it took his ally, Willis, to finally solve it. The paceman, who died in December, had a long and proud career on the field and as a beloved broadcaster but he was best remembered for his inspired spell of eight for 43, roaring in and tearing through whatever was left of Australia’s hopes. They were routed for 111, defeated by 18 runs and bloodied by a knockout punch they had never considered.

Finishing touches

  • 399 runs

  • 34 wickets

  • 12 catches

The entire tone of the series had changed and England, led astutely by Brearley and bouncing off the energy of a reinvigorated Botham, were not about to let the pendulum swing again. The talisman left his mark everywhere he went – a stunning sequence of five for one to settle the Edgbaston Test, another century in a winning cause at Old Trafford and a 10-wicket match at The Oval. England had won 3-1 and Botham had earned an indelible place in history.

History repeating

Ben Stokes produced a Botham-esque innings at Headingley in 2019 (Mike Egerton/PA)
Ben Stokes produced a Botham-esque innings at Headingley in 2019 (Mike Egerton/PA)

The saying goes that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but Ben Stokes disproved that logic when he channelled Botham in a quite astonishing Ashes masterpiece back at Headingley last year. His jaw-dropping 135 not out, complete with last-wicket stand of 76 alongside Jack Leach, was every bit as improbable and exhilarating as its spiritual predecessor.