Oh, this is certainly the best Ashes series since 1981,” “I’ve not seen England show guts like this since Headingley in 1981,” on and on it went during this summer’s Ashes. Barely a day passed without some comparison with the last Ashes series triumph to have truly inspired the nation, and in particular England’s victory in the match they’d looked so certain to lose that odds of 500 to 1 were available against them. Last week, after a well earned cricket break, I read Rob Steen and Alistair McLellan’s account of the match to find out why it is still viewed as England’s most dramatic victory. The build up to the 1981 was nothing like so perfect as England’s five successive series wins preceeding to the 2005 series. Its last tour, to the West Indies, was a disaster. The selection of Robin Jackman, a professional player in Apartheid South Africa, caused such an outcry in Guiana that he was expelled from the country, precipitating the abandonment of the second Test and, many felt, the heart attack which caused the death of England’s beloved coach, Ken Barrington, days later. England lost the series 2-0. Ian Botham, England’s talisman and captain, had failed to win a match in ten attempts and was in an unprecedented form slump.Events continued in this vein as the Ashes began. A supreme bowling effort gave Australia the first Test by four wickets. By the second, Botham had had enough. He resigned the Captaincy after scoring a pair of ducks. England had to bring Mike Brearly, a batsman with an average of 23, out of retirement. England endured three torrid days at the start of the Third Test, played at Headingley in Yorkshire. Australia won the toss and hit 401 as England failed to use a difficult pitch, poor bowling exacerbated by five dropped catces. In England’s innings, Terry Alderman’s late swing and Geoff Lawson’s pace removed the top order and Lillee skittled out the tail; England were all out 227 runs behind. Australia enforced the follow on and Mike Gatting was immediately out for a duck. As the third day ended Labdrokes’ match odds flashed on the scoreboard: Australia, 1-4; draw, 5-2; England 500-1. The only upside for England was Botham’s return to form. His spell of 5-35 had kept England in it, while with the bat he had top scored with 50, his first half century for two years. The next day, England were soon facing an innings defeat. A harsh LBW decision removed the tenacious Boycott and Australia were into the tail with a lead of 78. England’s remaining batsmen went on the attack through desperation, lacking the technique to bat defensively. Graham Dilley swung at everything; amazingly, after missing a couple, he started hitting and soon Botham followed suit. As Australia’s bowlers tired, Botham attacked with such venom that mishits flew to the boundary. With Dilley (57), Old (29) and Willis (1) in support, he ended the day unbeaten on 145.The fifth day was just as remarkable. Willis was soon out, leaving Botham stranded on 149 and England 130 in front. Hoping to build on their heroics with the bat, Brearly opened with Botham and Dilly; but Botham was hit for two fours in his first over and Dilley was injured after two. Willis was back in the attack for what was suspected to be his last spell for England. After five ineffectual overs, Brearly swapped him out, only to put him on again at the other end. Willis was visibly inspired. He launched a series of vicious, throat high balls, claiming three wickets for no runs before lunch. With Old tying down an end at an economy under 2 an over, Willis kept at the Australians. Dilley took an amazing catch, running backwards to the boundary rope to save a six and remove Rod Marsh. With Australia at 74-7, the match turned as Dennis Lillee and Ray Bright attempted a Botham-esque attack. They smashed 35 in four overs to bring Australia to within 20. Willis was puffing, but he rose to the challenge; a change of length and Lillee was gone. The game was England’s ; Willis sent Bright’s middle stump into the air with his very next ball. England had won, by 19 runs, a match in which they had trailed in every single session. Despite Willis’ innings figures of 8-43, Botham claimed man of the match. England were not to lose again in the series. They won two of the remaining three Tests to reclaim the Ashes 3-1. “The 1981 Ashes,” says McLellan’s introduction, “changed my life. I suspect I’m not alone in that.” Steen agrees – he credits the series for inspiring him to quit a job he hated and begin his dream career. To modern eyes this seems a ludicrous over-reaction to a game of cricket, but to an England suffering the bitterest years of Thatcher’s reforms, this match, and series, produced a genuine shot in the arm to the nation.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005

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