The Mad Baseball Bat Century


Ian Botham, Headingley 1981

I made my Test Match début in 1968, an Ashes summer, when I inadvertently discovered BBC TV coverage of each day’s play. All day, every day, that summer I would sit in black and white fascination. All but the crucial final day at the Oval, when England raced time to mop up the Aussies on a drying pitch and square the series, whilst my Mam had taken my sister and myself to Southport for the day, and I had to try to follow the score from people’s transistor radios along the promenade. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with this wonderful game.
I made my real Test Match début, my first attendance at a Test, thirteen years later, again in an Ashes summer, on the third day of the Fifth Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, naturally. Popular opinion now, and for a very long time to come, will nominate the 2005 series as the Greatest Ashes Series ever, but for those of us who are a bit older, it doesn’t quite dislodge 1981 from our affections. There were all the same thrills and dramas, and England coming from behind, but that summer of the first Six Test series, of the first experiment with Sunday play, had more twists, more aspects, more turns. And where 2005 had Andrew Flintoff, 1981 had Ian Botham.
The series started at Trent Bridge with the 25 year old Botham as England captain. He’d made his début in the Test team in 1977 and had already made his name as a charismatic all-rounder, an exciting, aggressive batsman, a vigorous, dynamic bowler: so much so that, when Mike Brearley had stepped down after winning the Ashes in Australia in 1978/9, against a Packer-decimated Aussie team, Botham had been the popular and Selectorial choice to succeed him.
It’s an arguable point as to what was the cause, but Botham hadn’t won a Test as Captain, and his form had undergone a severe dip: he had scored a half-century in his first Test as Captain, but hadn’t achieved a similar score after that, and he’d taken no five-fors. The press and the public were sure that it was the pressure of captaincy affecting his performance, Botham that it was simply a coincidental loss of form, and the fact that all those Tests had been against the West Indies was certainly more than a contributory factor. Any Captain would have struggled to make an impression upon them at that time, and this was before the ‘Blackwash’ series’ of the Eighties.
The England selectors’ response at this point was to re-appoint Botham as Captain, but only for the First Test, which England lost. He was then appointed Captain for the Second Test only. This was virtually unheard of and served as a focus for Press attention, which was redoubled when England drew the Test at Lords, and Botham was out for a pair.
At the end of the game, Botham spoke to the Selectors and asked them to show their confidence in him by appointing him for the remainder of the series. When they refused to do so, he resigned, confirming this to the Press and explaining that the pressure on his family was unacceptable if he was to be appointed in this drip-drip manner. All resolved, painlessly and sensibly – except that Chairman of the Selectors Alec Bedser then bluntly told the Press that if Botham hadn’t resigned, he’d have been sacked anyway. A cheap, nasty, unnecessary, heartless statement, and absolutely typical of a dictatorial and impervious body of men.
So Brearley was back – a 37 year old man who was a good first slip, a respectable but not Test Class batsman, and a genius at the art of captaincy. That is what he was picked for, to straighten out the England side and get it to function again.
Brearley’s first self-imposed task was to contact Botham and sound him out about his mental readiness for the Third Test. Botham, of course, was up for it: no challenge refused.
Which is where the tenor of the whole series changed. At Headingley
Though Botham managed to hit 50 in England’s first innings, this was still Australia’s test, for the first three and a half days. They’d only made a modest first innings score, but England, despite Botham’s contribution, made a much more modest one and were invited to follow on. And only once in the whole history of Test Cricket had a side won after being asked to follow on. England’s only hope was survival, and that didn’t look too hopeful as wickets fell steadily.
At that time, I was working in Romiley to the south east of Stockport. It meant I got home about 5.50pm on the Monday afternoon, just ten minutes ahead of close of play. I went straight to the TV, switched on BBC2. I caught a shot of the Scoreboard and refused to believe it.
I thought it had said 326-8, but that just wasn’t possible. I had to have misread it, probably 226, that was more like it. But it was 326, and come the highlights I marvelled at the hitting of Botham and Dilley, the sustained attack on the Aussie attack, weakened by the decision to choose left arm spinner Ray Bright on a seamer’s wicket. At close of play we had a lead of 125. Not much, obviously not enough, and a complete surprise.
The next morning, I was in Stockport, at the Magistrate’s Court. As I walked back to my car, at 12.00ish, I passed a television shop and saw Australia were batting again. Obviously we hadn’t added much more, and they were on the way to winning, but at least we’d restored some pride in defeat.
The next thing that happened was, as the clock struck 2.00 pm and I came back off lunch, I stopped off in the Off-Licence opposite, to buy a cold can of Coke – and heard the radio news announce that England had just won the Test! How on Earth had that happened?
Well, we’ll all know about Botham’s 149 not out, and Willis’s 8-42, and what a game it was to watch as the tide of fortune swung so decisively in England’s direction in the last day and a half of the game, making history, overturning expectation in the most spectacular of fashion. Or what it would have been like to watch that, even on TV, which is something that I did not get to do.
It was a dramatic moment, but all it had done was to level the series, and there were few indeed who, at that time, expected better than that England would be better equipped to complete in the last three Tests.
Back in 1981, Test Match Summers had a smooth, enviable rhythm. Headingley ended on the Tuesday, and Edgbaston began on the Thursday of the following week, each Test occupying the traditional venues, at regular fortnightly intervals. We were ready and rested for the resumption of the fray, but it was a nondescript, low-scoring Test – one of the few in which not a single batsman scored a 50 – and once again Australia were chasing a low fourth innings score to regain the series lead. We were already calling the Third Test victory “The Miracle of Headingley”, but no-one expected miracles to repeat themselves. History seemed less flexible, the unexpected more unexpected, and certainly not a serial event.
This was one of the three Tests that were experimenting with no rest day, so the climax ended up on Sunday afternoon. The BBC’s schedules were not prepared for all day cricket coverage on Sundays, so the game was dipping in and out of visits to Birmingham, just like the stop-start nature of the usual Sunday League coverage, where equal time was devoted to other sports. To keep me going, I had on Test Match Special on Radio 3 MW.
It was Australia’s game again, making slow and unspectacular progress towards a low target, more time than anyone would need to get there, five wickets down and accumulating without worries. Then Ian Botham came back into the attack.
Almost immediately, he ripped out Rodney Marsh, clean bowled. It was a start, at least until the next ball, with which he did Bright, leg before! Two in two, the balance of the game changing in an instant, on a hat trick and I’m screaming at the screen for the Beeb to get their coverage over to Edgbaston, before that third ball, come on, move it!
With the slowness of tectonic plates grinding, they did shift their monolithic direction, in time for a third ball that zipped past Lillee without taking a wicket, but now we were at the cricket, there was no going back. Botham struck again, and again, suddenly driving England to the edge of a second unexpected victory, the Botham whirlwind suddenly blowing away everyone in its path, and this was unfolding in real time, not something you come home from work to, done and recorded. And he did it, bending the world to fit around him, five wickets, five wickets in five overs and one ball, and only a single run conceded in that breathless rush. It was England now who, from a Test down, had taken the series lead. No-one who saw the post-match interview with the Captains will ever forget the look in Kim Hughes’ eyes. It was described as the look of someone who’d been sandbagged around the back of the neck just before going on, and in thirty years I’ve never come up with something to surpass that.
And so we moved to Manchester and the Fifth Test, and me.
Old Trafford was the last of the Sunday play Tests that summer. In later years, I would arrange my holidays in Ashes summers (and the West Indian ones) so that I could go to all five days, but this first occasion I hadn’t thought that far in advance and I was only going to the weekend, and Monday.
It was going to be a sunny weekend, August at its best. The first day’s play was pretty nondescript, England struggling towards a low total, and only being boosted past 200 on the Friday morning thanks to a maiden unbeaten Test half century from Lancashire’s fast-medium bowler Paul Allott, making his England début in this Test, thanks to a lot of hacking, slashing and Chinese cuts! It carried England to 231.
I’d been in Court again and now I was back to the car to go back to my Office, and straight to Radio 3MW, where the cheers were still reverberating for Bob Willis’s second wicket in an over. He’s had Johnny Dyson caught at slip off the first ball and, though Kim Hughes had struck a 4, the Aussie Captain was then leg before off the fourth ball. And it wasn’t over: off the last ball of the over, Willis had Graham Yallop caught at slip and then Allott took his first Test wicket, trapping Graham Wood leg before off the first ball of the next over! 20 for 0 to 24 for 4 in seven balls!
It knocked the guts out of the Aussie innings, and England established themselves a 101 run First innings lead which they’d extended to 171 at close of play, having lost the still-far-from-established Graham Gooch cheaply.
The Saturday was a sell-out, Old Trafford was at capacity, 25,000. I’d never seen the ground remotely full so far, so I was completely unprepared for the realities of the situation. There were none of the individual plastic-bucket seats of today: the terraces were adorned with park-bench type seats, in cracked and peeling blue paint, on which people sat and sprawled out as they choice, relaying on primacy of arrival. The ground might hold 25,00, but my inexpert guess was that it could only seat 21,000, and I wasn’t one of them.
Health and Safety be damned, people were sitting themselves on the long, low concrete steps of the gangways between sections on the Warwick Road End, and I followed suit, taking my thin summer jacket off and folding it into as thick a pad as possible (not very) and sitting on that for almost the whole day. It was hard and cold under… well, not foot, was it?
And for half the day, the cricket matched my bum-numb perch. In the morning session, two hours play, England lost three wickets and advanced their score by 29 runs. 29 runs in two hours of play, and a single boundary, a straight drive for 4 by Mike Gatting in the final over before lunch, through long off. And then, typical Gatting, he went and padded up to a straight one next ball, and was out lbw.
It wasn’t much better for most of the first hour after lunch, although it was getting warmer as the fringes of grey cloud were dissipating. Brearley came and went, bringing Botham in. At the other end, Chris Tavare pottered and nudged and nurdled and defended and generally advanced his score at a pace that would have had snails looking back at it, and anyone frustrated at Jonathan Trott rapidly revising their stories.
I decided I needed a drink and squeezed round to the bar under the back of C stand, only to discover when I returned that Botham had hit two fours in the same over off Bright – the second and third boundaries of the day, and I missed them. This was not an introduction to be remembered.
Though Botham was beginning to show a little more aggression, starting to drive the score on a little faster, the second new ball was due before long, and we all knew what that would mean: back into the shell, playing defensively.
The first over with the second new ball was bowled by Terry Alderman from the Warwick Road End, pitter-pattering away from us with that never-too-fast run. Botham was cautious for a couple of balls, then he tried to launch one over long-off and got under it a bit too much. Mike Whitney, the left arm seamer who, a week before, had been the Pro at Fleetwood, up the Fylde Coast, was racing back with arms outstretched but didn’t quite get there: the ball fell to earth and Botham ran three.
That left him on strike for the next over, Dennis Lillee from the Stretford End. This was Dennis Lillee – no longer the flat-out tearaway of 1972 who made me feel scared just running in on TV, but still, this was Dennis Lillee. And first ball he unleashed a bouncer at Botham’s head.
And Botham swayed out of the way, swung the bat round in a vicious circle and smashed it into the crowd behind square leg for 6.
I’ve said before of cricket’s peculiar virtue whereby a game can be fixed solidly in a certain groove, the weight and the power running strictly in one direction, and then in a single ball, the whole edifice is smashed and the game revolves into a completely different thing in an instant. That one shot destroyed the frustrating grip on the game of the austerity so far. The crowd were electrified. When Lillee came up to deliver his second ball, all things had changed.
Botham pushed a single. Tavare, unbelievably, scored 3. Lillee’s fourth ball was another bouncer to Botham, which he again hooked behind square on a flatter trajectory, the howls of the crowd running with it to the boundary. A dot ball, then off the last of the over, a third bouncer and this time Botham wasn’t even looking at the ball, head ducked as he swung and sent the ball back of square for another 6 and out of the ground too!
Funnily enough, after that first over, and those three strikes that I can still see in my mind, as exact as if I were still sat there on the stone step, I remember very little of the rest of Botham’s innings. The sweep for six over long leg, off Bright, with Lillee on the boundary stretching but not reaching the ball, to send us into lunch, the almost perfunctory snick when he edged Whitney behind and waked off briskly, as if he’d just completed a decent 38 at Taunton, these are all that have stuck with me.
But there were three more 6’s than I’ve already mentioned in an innings of 118 that tore the game away from the Australians. It was just powerful, aggressive hitting, the kind that often inspires the word ‘flaying’ to describe it. Botham’s been described as hitting the ball about like a mad baseball player, of scoring so fast that the scoreboard wasn’t able to keep up with him. That at least is hype, but he more than scored so fast that his partner Tavare couldn’t keep up with him. But then, he didn’t try.
Tavare, who’d come in on the Friday evening, after the fall of Gooch, had progressed to 35 not out when Botham came to the wicket. By the time Botham departed, the partnership having added 149 Tavare’s score had gone on to 63. That kind of disparity in a partnership is not surprising when you’re batting with the tail (Viv Richards/Mike Holding, remember?) but it’s highly unusual when the non-scoring partner is the no. 3 batsman. But, until the end of his career, that was Tav. He just stuck to keeping his end up. This really was a one-man show.
Botham’s innings had changed the game. There was a sense of inevitability to things thereafter that, under a hot August sun, filled the crowd with easy enjoyment, fuelled by the drink, of course.
Brearley opted to bat on, to bat Australia out of any prospect of coming back into the game, there being two days and six sessions after the Saturday. So Knott and Emburey, overnight and into a simply glorious and uproarious Sunday, piled on the runs, despite a certain impatience on the crowd’s part to get at those Aussies. When England were finally out, for 404, Australia’s target was 505, a fourth innings total out of all imagining, but still only 100 a session for five sessions.
And they were obliged to go after it. Not just because they were Australians but because there was so much of the game, in perfect conditions, to play. Yallop made a ton, Border made an unbeaten ton, 123 not out, batting with a broken finger.
I remember the uproarious atmosphere, especially on the Sunday, with a capacity crowd revelling in English superiority. The batting and the bowling was of a very high quality – the very best moment was when Alan Knott tried a controlled ‘uppercut’ towards third man and Johnny Dyson, who’d been a bit of a butt of the English crowd’s taunting all summer, sprinted a dozen yards to his right before diving to take a one-handed catch.
But it was the sense of fun I remember most of all. The pitch invasion, in the afternoon session, by the bloke wearing a gorilla costume and trying to get to shake hands with Botham (whose nicknames included ‘Guy the Gorilla’). The even better pitch invasion by two blokes who simply climbed over the fence in front of H stand and, side by side as if they had every right to be there, strolling across the ground towards the wicket, ignoring the umpire going to meet them and, as soon as they reached the wicket, grabbing the bails at each end and sprinting off into the crowd, to raucous cheers.
The best moment however was restricted to those sat in my section of the Warwick Road End. There were girls wandering around, selling ice creams, and some guy, six or seven rows behind me, had cadged from one a piece of the dry ice being used to keep the ice creams from melting. he wanted to cool his beer down, so he dropped it in his glass, and it started foaming and bubbling, the glass vomiting broiling liquid from its rim, and he held the glass up for all to see, the dry ice kicking and spitting and the foam streaming down his arm, and everybody collapsing in laughter at the sight of it.
Monday was a complete contrast, the ground only about a third full and though the sun was still high and full, a certain coolness crept into the air. England bowled on, Australia batted on. They’d been 210 overnight, for 5, still needing almost 300 runs for the impossible victory, but in terms of scoring rates, they had clearly set themselves for the steady 100 runs a session, and they weren’t losing wickets. In the afternoon, with Lillee supporting the immovable Border, the nagging doubt began to creep in that maybe, just maybe, they might do it, or even get as close as the New Zealanders had done in 1972, less than a decade earlier, when I was still at School, in chasing down a 500 plus target and giving history a real fright.
But this was Botham’s year and it was his Test for the third time in a row, and Paul Allott was bowling at the Warwick Road End, to Lillee, with Botham in that position of arrogance at second slip, hands on knees until the batsman’s played his shot, and Lillee edged the ball wide of Botham, and he snatched it in both hands, the ball behind him.
From there it was merely time. The ninth wicket went down before tea, which was delayed a half hour, but Border managed to keep enough of the strike away from Alderman to extend the game into its final session. And then there was a bomb scare in the Warwick Road End, and we all had to evacuate to other parts of the ground, but the game didn’t last long after tea, and we were all running onto the pitch in the manner of the early Eighties, not that there were that many of us, because we’d won the Test, and won the Ashes. My first test. My first Ashes Test. The only time I’ve seen England beat Australia.
It was Botham’s summer, or at least those three Tests were. No-one could fail to support him then, falling, like the Australians before his invincible form. Like everyone in that summer of 1981, I wanted to see him play far more than any other cricketer alive.
The years were not kind to that veneration. Nowadays, I try to ignore Botham, rather than endure the sort of stuff that’s totally destroyed my respect for him, such as his public declaration that he would hang me if he had the opportunity (he being a Monarchist and I a Republican). I’d rather remember the days when he was an exciting and flamboyant batsman and bowler, rather than a 14 carat ****.
Like when he batted like a madman at Old Trafford, and I was there.

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