Ian Botham’s heroics in the greatest Test ever

Ian Botham

Today we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the greatest test match ever in the history of Cricket, which had one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of sport. The 3rd test at Leeds from July 17-22 in 1981, between England and Australia was the equivalent of a Hollywood classic or epic novel. There could be rarely instances in the history of sport where such a miraculous turn of events took place or one felt the sensation of the intervention of the divine. This game set the tone of one of the most dramatic series ever in the history of the Ashes or Cricket itself.

Before the start of the 3rd test at Headingley ,Australia were already 1-0 up, winning the 1st test at Trent Bridge. In the afternoon on the 4th day Australia were in total command After enforcing the follow on 227 runs ahead., England were tottering at 135-7.An Australian victory was a mere formality and it looked as though only the last rites of the game had to be completed. At that juncture Ian Botham launched one of sports greatest ever rear guard counter attacking assaults. In a mere 87 balls he reached a century, executing some of the most dazzling strokes ever seen on a cricket field. It was reminiscent of a hurricane intervening on the hottest of summer days, with Botham ressurecting England from the grave. The sheer audacity of his strokes on a wicket not suited for test cricket, with two paced bounce, was breathtaking. His strokes were no doubt not so technically correct or graceful and at times even reckless. However if you consider the nature of the pitch, it was an exhibition of inventiveness in batting of the highest degree. There could have been few innings more scintillating, resembling the impact of bombe raiding an airbase. The likes of pace bowlers like Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson were ruthlessly smashed all over the ground, in the manner of machine mowing down grass and the power of a motorboat. At the end of the day when the score reached 351-9 with Botham unbeaten on 149, the Australian bowlers looked like cattle walking to a slaughter house. I hardly have an adjective to the effect of Botham’s innings in pumping the adrelanin of the spectators, as though a new life was infused into them. It lifted the spirit of the entire nation whose morale was close to an all-time low due to the economic depression in the Margaret Thatcher era. No batting exhibition was more reminiscent of a classic resurrection of an army battalion from the depths of despair. The impact of Botham’s innings was reflected in the complete transformation of the body language in the English dressing room. which was rock bottom a couple of hours earlier in the day. It was also fitting that Botham had made a spectacular resurrection in the 1st innings itself when capturing 6 wickets for 95 runs and scoring 50 out of a total of 174.

The following day England were dismissed for 357 and left Australia a target of a mere 130 runs to win. At 56-1 it looked a mere formality with Australia coasting home. However just on the brink of lunch Mike Brearley switched Bob Willis into the Kirkstall Lane end, which proved to be a master tactical move.In a few moments the complexion of the game changed completely, like a new character giving a complete twist to a novel. Willis removed Trevor Chappell unable to fend of an unplayable lifting short ball, Kim Hughes caught in the slips to a risng ball and Graham Yallop brilliantly caught to a snorter at short leg. Rarely in cricket have I seen spirit of determination or single-mindedness scale such a height as in the spell of Bob Willis. The manner he thundered in simply told the story, as though he carried the entire fortunes of England on his shoulders. I must mention the great supporting roles of Graham Dilley who made dazzling 56 and a quickfire 25 by Chris Old. Without the support of Dilley and Old Botham would never have scaled such a monumental peak. Rarely has any cricketer been in such a cocoon of concentration as Bob Willis that day or taken grit to such realms. When steaming in he looked as though the spirits posessed him, as though in a trance. Few pace bowlers ever banged the ball harder to extract bounce or exploit conditions so surgically on an untrue pitch, with uneven bounce.

After Lunch Willis continued from where he left off, dismissing Rodney Marsh,John Dyson and Geoff Lawson,in quick succession. However the unforgettable moment was the dismissal of Chris Old of Border, who had him playing onto his stumps. Perhaps that was the major turning point of the game. At 75-8 Australia tenaciously fought back scoring 35 runs in 4 overs and it looked as the game again had a twist to the tale. It was then that Mike Gatting took a spectacular catch at mid on off Willis to dismiss Dennis Lillee.Finally Willis sealed a victory crashing through the gate of Ray Bright. Australia were dismissed for a score of 111, giving England an 18 run win. Never in history of cricket had a term resurrected from the grave to reach such a pinnacle of glory.

Willis ended with figures of 8-43, with his spell ranking as arguably the best ever in defending a total. Rarely has any cricketer been in such a cocoon of concentration as Bob Willis that day or taken grit to such realms. When steaming in he looked as though the spirits possessed him, as though in a trance. Few pace bowlers ever better extracted bounce or exploited conditions on an untrue pitch.A  miracle had been pulled off and instead of celebrating Bob Willis ran to the pavilion, with spirit of fury and vengeance rarely seen in sport. Willis was furious with the media for belittling or writing him off and his charge was manifestation of his will to put the press in it’s place. No man looked more as though he had fulfilled his thirst for vengeance.

The adulation in the crowds was so great as though they were witnessing a new epoch in history .Difficult to ever visualize such an elevation in the spirit of the entire nation as though a magical power had penetrated through it. The level of ecstasy and jubilation in the crowds traversed unprecedented magnitudes in sport.

It is ironic that at the start of the test Ian Botham had been relinquished from captaincy and on the verge of being dropped. Bob Willis had also been slandered by the press. Mike Brearley was appointed as captain, who formally led England to a series of sweeping successes.Brearley’s ability to ressurect the spit of Ian Botham which has sunk in the Morass played a crucial factor in the English resurgence. He brilliantly initiated a tactical move of change the end at which Willis bowled.

I salute the Australians for taking defeat so sportingly, with skipper Kim Hughes stating that above all it was a great game for test cricket as a whole and happy that it gave such a thrill to spectators.

The story continued at Edgbaston in the 4th test where Botham again pulling of near miracle .The game was a low scoring affair, even on a good wicket. England were dismissed for a mere 189 runs in the 1st inning and after being 69 runs behind score 219 in the 2nd.Requiring a mere 151 runs to win Australia looked home and dry at 114-5 before Botham intervened. In space of a few overs he polished off the Australian batsmen, capturing five wicket s for one run. The vibrations of a god casting a spell like at Headingley before re-emerged after last man Terry Alderman was dismissed. Ironically Botham did not even what to bowl ,and it was skipper Brearley who forced him to wear his bowling boots.Botham penetrated the gate of Rodney Marsh and Martin Kent, trapped Ray Bright, had Dennis Lille caught behind and finally yorked Terry Alderman. England had again escaped from the jaws of certain defeat..to dismiss Australia for a score of 121 and win by 29 runs. One must give due credit also to spinner John Emburey who made a crucial breakthrough with the scalps of Graham Yallop and Alan Border ,with the Aussies jusr around 60 runs adrift from the target of 151..Emburey also performed a rescue act with the bat scoring an unbeaten 37 to take the England lead from a mere 98 to a more respectable 151.Brearley also most intuitively promoted Chris Old in the batting line up. In my view his tactical mastery played an important role in England’s win. I also give great credit to Chris Old for his 2 crucial wickets towards the end of the first day, to claw England back into the game.

Next stop Old Trafford in the 5th test where Botham’s heroics continued .His 118 in the 2nd innings ranks amongst the most outstanding test inning s ever ,taking batting prowess to heights almost unscaled.It came of a mere 102 balls. His hooked sixes of Alderman and Lillee,punishing straight drives and square cuts, were worth preserving in a museum. It was technically far better innings than the unbeaten 149 at Headingley. Rarely has agression being blended with as much technical skill and inventiveness as Botham here, taking virtuosity to mythical proportions. Being precariously placed earlier at 104-5 .England were taken to an unpregnable position, setting Australia a target of 506 runs to win.Botham also took crucial scalps which enabled England to secure a 101 run lead in the 1st innings ,making Australia capitulated to a mere 130.Again Bob Willis  played an instrumental being at his fieriest, when tearing apart the Australian top order. In the end England won by a margin of 102 runs, and clinched the sacred Ashes, by a 3-1 margin. Even in defeat Australia were heroic, piling up a score of 402, with centuries from Graham Yallop and Alan Border.

Three tests before, such a metamorphosis was unbelievable. England virtually were ressurected from the grave on the 4th day of the 3rd test at Leeds , to go on to regain the Ashes. The events of the last 3 tests were like a script written for an epic classic with a most mysterious turn in plot. Never in the history of the game had one man single-handedly turned a series as Ian Botham did here. His achievements here were simply unparalleled in the history of the game, traversing mythical heights. Rarely was cricketing energy penetrated in such realms as Botham here, in every department of the game. Mike Brearley too must be given credit for bringing the best out of Botham and for some mastery tactical moves. I can hardly visualise a better reader of mind s than Brearley. He illustrated the importance of psychology in sport. Bob Willis in junctures bowled with agression and ferocity in intensity rarely traversed, psychologically intimidating the opposition. with a series of striking blows.

In the 6th test Botham captured 10 wickets but could not re-capture the heroics of the last few games.

Above all the series exhibited sportsmanship at its very best from both sides, being played in the very spirit of the game and was an advertisement for test cricket. The Leeds test and series overall proved that Test Cricket was  still the best form of the game, which had twists and turn of fortunes like no other form of the game. Kim Hughes’s words of not having any regret about the result at Leeds, speaks for itself, when he underlined that the game was the winner.


At his best Ian Botham was the best all-rounder after Sir Garfield Sobers and arguably the best ever match-winner amongst all-rounders.Very rarely did any cricketer in the all-round sense exude or radiate energy at such a magnitude on  a cricket field. Botham could hit a cricket ball with the power of a bulldozer capture scalps by perplexing batsman with his variety and pull of the most stunning catches. At his best his all-round achievements were unparalleled. He complemented his staggering power with immaculate defensive technique with the bat and to start of was as explosive as any pace bowler, with mastery of inswing and outswing.I have never seen a more intelligent pace bowler No bowler had a more deceptive swinging half volley. At his best no all-rounder could turn games in such mythical proportions. If I ever chose a cricketer to make a team rise like a phoenix from the Ashes my firs choice would be Botham.At peak I do not back even the likes of Jacques Kallis or Imran Khan to turn the complexion games in the manner of Botham.,with bat and ball together. At his peak Botham was in the league of Viv Richards as a cricketer, and the best match-winner .Had Botham maintained the momentum or continued the streak of the best part of his careeer or even come close to it I would have backed him to be classed in the league of Bradman,Sobers,Tendulkar ,Warne or Viv Richards.

From 1977-82 Botham surpassed any all-rounder in test history as a match-winner and in terms of performance amongst allrounders, 2nd only to the great Sir Garfield Sobers statistically. Botham was the fastest to achieve the double of 100 wickets and 1000 runs in a mere 21 tests. In the 1980 Jubilee test at Mumbai he took 13 wickets for a mere 107 runs and scored 114 runs. It was the greatest all-round performance ever in the games history .England wee in dire stratus at 58-5 before Botham performed a rescue act with Bob Taylor, adding 169 runs for the 6th wicket. In that game .Botham also scored 5000 runs and took 300 wickets in a mere 53 tests, the fastest ever. Botham is the only all-rounder ever to score a century and capture 5 wickets in a test match on 5 occasions. Botham from 1977-82 who took all-round cricketing performance to unparalleled heights averaging over 37 with the bat scoring 2996 runs and around 23 with the ball, taking 249 scalps, taking more than 5 wickets at an average in every test. Overall Botham scored 5200 runs at 33.54 with 14 centuries and took 383 wickets at an average of 28.40 .Botham was not at his best in ODI’s scoring 2113 runs at an average of 23.22 and took 145 wickets at 28.54.

Still it is sad that his career declined after 1982,when he was overshadowed by Imran Khan and to an extent by Kapil Dev.Botham gave flashes of brilliance like when taking 8-103 and scoring 81 at Lords against the best ever West Indies team in 1984,take 31 scalps and averaging  over 30  with the bat in the 1985 home Ashes, Scored 138 in the 1st test and capture 5 wickets in the 4th  test at Melbourne to win the 1986-7 Ashes for England in Australia, and displayed some telling batting performances in New Zealand.It is ironic that in 1982 in England he was overshadowed by both Kapil Dev and then Imran Khan ,and again by Imran  Khan in 1987 in England.Botham was never at his best in West Indies or against them but still his Lords effort in 1984,stands out as one of the best all-round cricketing displays against the best team ever. His strokes with the bat were simply staggering against the most lethal pace bowling and he moved the ball around to launch the most striking blows, perplexing the very best of batsmen.

Had Botham maintained the momentum of his best apart or even come close to it I would have backed him to be classed in the league of Bradman,Sobers,Tendulkar ,Warne or Viv Richards. David Gower ranks Botham as the 13th best cricketer of all time, Cristopher Martin Jenkins and Geoff Armstrong place him at 18th place, while John Woodcock in 10th place. If I had any cricketer to replace the great Sir Garfield Sobers, my first choice would be Ian Botham. Cricketing stars like Abdul Qadir,Alan Donald,Dean Jones,Richard Hadlee,Mike Procter ,Barry Richards.Dilip Vengsarkar,Saed Anwar,Shaun Pollock,Jeff Thomson and Shane Warne have chosen Botham in their all-time XI.18 past cricketers overall selected him in their best ever test XI.In my selection Botham would miss out by a whisker in my All-time test XI .I would prefer a fast bowling all-rounder to accompany the great Sir Garfield Sobers or specialist fast bowlers competent with those like Wasim Akram or Malcolm Marshall.Botham would comprise my 15 best cricketers of all time.

To me lack of consistency, loosing form in the mid 1980’s and not being at his best against West Indies, the best team of his day,prevent Botham from outright ranking as the best all-rounder after Gary Sobers, and contest that spot with likes of Imran Khan ,Keith Miller or even Jacques Kallis.His carer graph simply slithered from 1982-92,than before.

Sadly he was unsuccessful as a skipper unlike Imran Khan and Kapil Dev and after 1981 never regained the captaincy.

Botham took 120 catches and could rank amongst the dozen bets slip fielders of all.

It is sad that his cricketing life was marred in tussles with Imran Khan and other Pakistan cricketers on issue of ball-tampering creating the atmosphere of a war in the legal front. He was also at times abrasive with the English Cricket board and loose his temper. Still overall he was most positive person, having a charitable aspect to him, participating in many a charity run or walk.. I loved his great friendship with Sir Viv Richards who was like a brother to him .as well as Sunil Gavaskar.Botham was another example of how a person could rise from the poorer classes.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has travelled around India and written on blogs like ‘Democracy ad Class Struggle’, ‘Ottos War Room’ and ‘Frontier Weekly.’ Mainly written on politics of mass line in Communist Movement , Maoism, peasant struggles but also on blogs on Cricket and films. Email- [email protected]



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