Cricket: It’s Headingley 1981 and I want to be sedated

By Tony Roberts

The gloomiest roommate I ever endured was Bernard Disken. At the time we met in September 1983, Bernard was only 23, but he’d already mastered the full Eeyore to an extent that must have made his fellow disciples of the defunct House of York grey with envy.
We were part of an Intourist group from London travelling around the USSR in the bad old days of the KGB, on Aeroflop, with severely attractive tour-guide/minders who either were or should have been called Comrade Olga, of Avengers fame. (As opposed to Russia’s bad current days of Putin, Abramovich and Berezhovsky, that is.) In the Chinese sense, September 1983 was an extremely “interesting time” to visit the USSR. Courtesy of its air force’s (shall we say) “impulsive” shooting down of a South Korean passenger jet the previous week, our own tour group came very near to enjoying the indefinitely extended hospitality of the Tatianas and Yuris of this world.

Anyone who ever went on an Intourist trip knows the drill:

“Tovarisch, on right, out there in Gulf of Finland …island Kronstadt. What were sailors thinking? It is dictatorship of proletariat.”


“This collective farm rural democracy in action. Chairman of Board so popular, re-elected nine times in row – 27 years straight. Wow!”

And in Tbilisi:

“See cobbler got favourite photo of Uncle Joe in window? Georgians love hometown hero!” (Of course, the Cockneys in our tour group found the pronunciation of Tbilisi too hard, so they settled on Bleecy.)

When our group flew from what was then Leningrad to the Black Sea, the plane refuelled at Kharkov, in what is now the Ukraine. (Confusing?) Bernard had once lived in Kharkov as an exchange student: “Kharkov?! It’s a right TIP!: It was ever Bernard’s fate to reside in “right tips”; on his own unsolicited and vehement assessment, even his hometown of Dewsbury, a few miles south-west of Leeds, was just such a tip.

In spirit if not flesh, Dewsbury must have also been near Eric Oldthwaite’s permanently drizzling Denley Moor (“t’were always reigning …”). In Bernard’s life, the brightest, shiniest silver lining was only ever the perimeter of a dark, dank cloud. Such was his personal experience, two years previously, of one of English’s cricket’s most glorious moments – while everyone else in England dived for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Bernard had only managed to get drenched in the psychological downpour that preceded the rainbow.

Fresh (if that be possible) out of uni and still waiting to start his first job as a journalist, Bernard had ventured to Headingley on Thursday 16 July 1981 to watch the first three days play of that Ashes series’ third Test.

Headingley in 1981: creaky ghosts of cricket’s Globe Theatre

Even making allowances for advances in both human physical dimensions and architectural aesthetics since 1600 – as well as Southwark’s long wait to re-ascend London’s ladder of social cachet (till about the TV release of This Life in 1997) – I have always felt that the Globe Theatre was a notably mundane place from which to launch Shakespeare’s universal dramas upon the world. So too, often, in matters of cricketing drama.

Some Test venues have the grandeur and the stature (Eden Gardens, the MCG); others, the perfect scale (Lords, the SCG); yet others, the backdrop (Adelaide, Bellerive, The Basin, Newlands, Queens Park, Galle, Kandy: a long list, this); or even a combination of these elements (Sabina Park, The Wanderers). And all of the above have had their dramas, from time to time. But there seems to be an inverse relationship between aesthetics and consistent cricket drama. Think of the (old, pre-bowdlerised) Gabba, St Georges Park, Madras/Chennai, Edgbaston, Old Trafford, The Oval. And Headingley. Always, always Headingley. So forget the backdrop, Headingley has the buzz – it is Test cricket’s Globe Theatre.

The key to the drama of Headingley lies mostly within the boundaries of its playing field. From the West Terraces, look directly ahead to a cross-cut swathe of baize, in the dazzling emerald tones that warn us how close we are to Irish latitudes and Gulf-Stream weather patterns. Unlike Ireland’s earth, though, what sits beneath Headingley is not so much a soft bog as the hard slate of a billiards table, off which the even most smoothly struck cue ball might skid like a pebble across an ice rink. And in the centre of the field sleeps an ancient reptile, the Headingley pitch.

When the sun is on it, the pitch basks as motionless as a concreted crocodile. Activate Yorkshire’s standing invitation to the clouds and rain, though, and the reptile will stir, perhaps assuming the primal power of the crocodile, possibly the horrific flair and lightning snap of the cobra. (Accidental – or even deliberate – poisonings, such as by the fungus Fusarium, may also affects the reptile’s mood.) At all events, when Headingley’s pitch awakens, there are no cheap runs or room for “sooft Sootheners”. Every single scored is a batting statement, every boundary a bell-ringing exclamation of defiance.

You notice also the slope of the ground, an even fall from north to south, as if to assist a Viking raiding party, having landed at Whitby or Scarborough, make rapid gravitational progress to Northampton or Watford, thence to pillage said Sootheners. Perhaps the old Vikings stopped to eat lunch in the grandstand of the adjoining rugby league ground that houses the Leeds Rhinos (an apt sporting nickname for these parts). Certainly, cricket spectators at Headingley eat their lunch in the RL stand – god knows, it’s one of the nearest approximations to creature comforts that the tight fists of the Yorkshire CCC permit them. The cricket ground’s own Football Stand, along the short, straight southern boundary, is little better than a rear annex of the RL stand. A similar arrangement exists in Victoria, between the Geelong AFL and cricket clubs at Kardinia Park – but it’s a much more salubrious set-up at Catland than in the Rhino enclosure.

What surrounds the field seems mostly uninspiring. The only potential for spiritual uplift is if the steeple of St Michael’s Church – directly ahead of you, to the east of the ground – should reflect back the light of the evening sun against a backcloth of dark clouds.

Actually inside the cricket ground – for 180 degrees from the south-east corner, to which the young Bradman twice returned to an old pavilion after two triple centuries – the unroofed vista in 1981 was broken only by three “features”: beyond extra cover, an Ugly Betty 1960s office block for Yorkshire CCC’s administration, which doubled as the players’ dressing rooms (complete with direct view of the setting sun); beyond mid-off, a brooding grove of Tuscan fir trees dating from the 1930s (and since the late 1980s chopped down, with outrageous historical insensitivity); and at the Kirkstall Lane end, world cricket’s largest human sightscreen, featuring a sea of (hopefully) unmoving heads as the bowler approached the crease – backed outside the ground, of course, by the green West Yorkshire Transit buses trundling down Kirkstall Lane itself and immortalised by Henry Blofeld in his BBC Radio Test Match Special commentaries.

And so to the fabled West Terrace itself. Above the Terrace, Yorkshire had installed before the 1981 Test what (then) seemed like a technological marvel, a new scoreboard, upon which the numbers clattered up in that reassuring manner of timetable indicator boards at major European railway stations. (And during this Test, some very interesting numbers indeed were to clatter up on that Headingley board.)

Which leaves us with the “accommodation” on the West Terraces – what English sports authorities like to call the “popular” section of the ground. I believe that nowadays the Terrace features plastic seats bolted onto concrete footings – you know, standard issue. Based on my personal experience from two years afterwards, not so in 1981. No, back then splintered wooden planks straddled, but were not fastened to, wonky besser blocks that sat loose upon the concrete terraces. (“And Tiny Tim thought that boost’d Scrooge were tight!”) Rather a good breeding ground for wintry humour from Headingley’s spectators – or vicious spite, depending on the match situation, weather or (all too often) racial factors.

Combine this one-star accommodation with the ghosts of Yorkshire past – the New York Yankees of my county cricket, long ago – and the ground could be said to have a unique atmosphere. And as surely as the stone monuments of Ruth, Gehrig and Joltin’ Joe surround the field in Yankee Stadium, the ghosts of old Yorkshire stalk the ground in pairs: pre Deluge Une: Peate & Peel; Tunnicliffe & Brown; Wainwright & Haigh; Hirst & Rhodes; Booth & Drake; pre Deluge Deux: Sutcliffe & Holmes; Leyland & Kilner; Verity & Bowes; and après: Hutton & Trueman; Wardle & Appleyard; Illingworth & Close; Boycott & his batting average. Which last example tells its own story: not so much latterly. Sad to say, by 1981 Leeds (and the North in general) were characterised not so much by the cricket deeds of Herbert Sutcliffe as by namesakes of lesser, even ignoble achievement, who had made their names elsewhere: Stu (in Liverpool and Hamburg) or Peter (in Hell, alarmingly nearby). Still, the now 40-year-old Boycs was present in the flesh (batting average in tow) during the 1981 Ashes series.

Brearley back, Beefy down, Big Bob not quite out

By the Third Test at Leeds, Australia led the series 1-0. After copping a pair in the preceding drawn match at Lord’s, England’s great white mouth, Ian Botham, had just been dumped as captain at the ripe age of 25. (Officially, “dumped” is not quite fair; Botham had resigned as captain after Lord’s, whereupon England’s chairman of selectors, Alec Bedser, helpfully added that he would have been dumped if he hadn’t first jumped.) Whatever the legal niceties of the matter, it was generally agreed that, right then, Botham was not so much Beefy as Tripey.

Mike Brearley, who always thought a great game but could never walk so much as a fair one, was resurrected as a captain in the Harry Hopman tradition. Bob Willis, having a series shocker to match his hairdo and Weltanschauung, was dropped after Lord’s, but – when his totally forgotten replacement went down with the mandatory England pre-match injury – was then recalled to the team at Leeds just before the match.

Kim Hughes won the toss and Australia batted. On the first day, Bernard Disken stared blankly as Australian opener John Dyson meandered to the pedestrian century that the West Indies players he nowadays coaches would kill to score. (Brendan Nash – from Brisbane, Jamaica – has usually bored himself out by somewhere in his 60s.)

On the next day, Friday, Bernard and others on the West Terraces sallied a few sourities as captain Hughes protected his predecessor Graham Yallop from Willis’s nasty but totally ineffective bouncers. (“Hey, what about that Kimbo? What a leader! And Wallop? Now, there’s a man you’d want in trenches – German trenches”) Australia declared on 401-9. Botham gave the appearance, if precious little substance, of a return to bowling form by grabbing a bin-full of cheapies at the death to present figures of 6-95. He might have fooled himself, but few others. (“T’were easily fooled, thut Bowtham.”)

Black Saturday

And then to the Saturday …  Saturday – BA-LUDDY – SUT-UR-DEH!

England scored 174 — 227 short — and Hughes enforced the follow-on. Each of Australia’s quick bowlers grabbed at least three cheap wickets, most spectacularly when Geoff Lawson bowled Boycott with a 90mph offie that broke fully two feet off what had frankly had been a dodgy surface since the start of the match on Thursday.

On the dressing room balcony, Willis and the other England bowlers cringed at the exposure of their foregoing incompetence. For the whole of Black Saturday, save for his two brief appointments in the middle of the ground, they had the gloomy company of Graham Gooch. Rather in the manner of Dr Grace v The Demon at Lord’s 103 years earlier, Gooch before lunch was very soon rolled, and Gooch before stumps did yet again fold. (“Hello, you’ve rung the home of Graham Gooch. I’m out at the moment, most likely lbw Alderman.”)

In England’s first dig, Botham further deceived himself that, yes, he could bat all right in Test cricket, by slogging and laughing his way to a totally irrelevant, get-your-name-in-the-papers 50. But there’s no fooling Amy Winehouse on matters of cricketing rehab: “No, no, nah, no, nah, no.”

Not yet, Beefy. Not yet.

This most dismal of English cricketing days ended in farce when the umpires took the players from the field for bad light about 30 minutes before the scheduled stumps time of 6pm (that’s, of course, 3am to us in the civilised parts of Australia). As now, the playing conditions allowed play to extend to 7pm BST if a resumption was possible – but unlike now, in 1981 this extension was only permissible if the resumption occurred before 6pm. Follow?

The Headingley crowd, perverse masochists all, waited with damp underpants for another bout of their miserable pleasures. “Why, Soothen fookers might coom back in and flop to fookin’ 30-6 by 7. Ecstasy! – beat shoebox in middle o’ motorway!”

When glorious summer was remade in the land of the White Rose by the sun’s dazzling reappearance at 6.02pm, the ground announcer promptly killed off the filthy speculations of this coven of masochists. Imagine the relish in his voice: “Bard look, no further play puss-ible … eejits!” So then, sadist 1-masochists 0.

The massed spiritual heirs and subjects of the despised, demised and long-since de-legitimised Dick Three vented their wintry discontent with a storm of hooting. (“A gaame, a game …ma fooken ticket for a gaame!”) Bernard Disken approved of, perhaps engaged in, this demonstration. Some West Terrace patrons added an incongruous note of colour to proceedings by hurling onto the field those BYO seat cushions that had given their buttocks a thin veneer of civilised comfort.

No Sunday play back in 1981 – not at the Leeds Test, anyway. So the Beefster showed the Australian team what a good bloke he was by inviting them to his proximate Humberside compound on the rest day. The Aussies shared Both’s barbie with Brearley’s “useless shower” (as the Fleet Street Sundays were no doubt pronouncing them by now). There is no evidence that, so far back as 1981, any of Beefy’s steaks were cut from the carcasses of crazed cattle. Indeed, there is no known record of Ken Russell ever having been indulged to direct a movie featuring the massed, moaning ranks of British bovines (Devils of Aberdeen Angus?). But, in the light of subsequent events, you wonder…

Bernard starts a job

Bernard Disken didn’t go to Day 4 of the Leeds Test: Monday 20 July 1981. No, not because he couldn’t bear to put up with any more of the misery. Au contraire …

Bernard had finally cracked it to start his first newspaper job. And right there at home – his very own “right tip” – in what he undoubtedly thought of (but never said to his editor’s face) as Dewsbury’s miserable excuse for a local rag. Probably more in grudging observance of first-day-on-the-job-etiquette than genuine fondness for covering the Dewsbury courthouse’s sad parade of prostitutes, lamp-post pissers and parking ticket evaders, Bernard couldn’t follow the cricket on either Monday or Tuesday.

So let’s fill him in, shall we?

Still trailing by over 200, England buckled to 41-4. Brearley soon enough revealed his limitations as a Test No.3 (or number anything, really), Gower wafted a pull to mid-on. (“Oh, have they put a fieldsman there? Bother!”) And the young Mike Gatting – not for the first, and most definitely not for the last, time – shuffled in front of his stumps to the inevitable Alderman Clem. Peter Willey gave it a desperate crack for an hour and some, till he uppercut Lillee (he of the monogrammed headband and constantly changed shirt) to Dyson, positioned at a shortish third man for just this shot by the coming genius, Kimberley John Hughes. Could we have unearthed a tactical successor to Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell, men who could put their heads into a bin full of rotting slops and come out with a mouthful of diamonds? 105-5. The bookies’ odds clattered up on the new scoreboard: England 500-1. Knowing glances and grins between two Sandgropers at either end of the pitch. They shall remain nameless and shameless.

Gooch lent his Duncan Fearnley bat to Botham in the quixotic hope that it might acquire a red mark or two. After lunch, the defiantly helmet-free, bearded wolf resisted his lifelong urge to run out Boycott, and provided a plausible charade of responsible batting support to “t’ only man wit’ troo Yorkie grit” among England’s specialist batsmen.

At this time, watching the match on TV, I observed what then seemed to be a strangely inappropriate, “Ravi Bopara” smile on Botham’s dial. An unwillingness to comprehend the direness of England’s state, perhaps? But look at it another way: maybe Beefy was just soaking up life’s irony. (“Well then, Mr Bedser, so we haven’t fallen behind Australia because I’m a lousy captain – perhaps, really, we’re just not good enough, you sour old git. And while all around are dead or dying, I’m still standing here – and I’m just about all you’ve got left now.”) So then, perhaps not so much RavBop as Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore, the leader who loved his boys and knew that he’d personally get through to the end of the war without so much as a scratch. Time to load up a bit of Wagner on the chopper stereo? Ta-dum-tee-dah-dah-dum …

Back on earth, the score crawled to 133, when Boycott copped a dodgy decision against Alderman and stalked off. Bob Taylor surrendered immediately to short leg. England, with just three more wickets in their backpack, had to swim the broad Amazon of another 92 runs just to make Australia bat again before the latter went two Tests up with only three more to play. Time now: Day 4, 3.20pm – or just after midnight for Australian fans, watching and waiting for the trap-door lever to be pulled.

The scorpion’s tail

Enter Valkyrie No1: despite his Kentish provenance, a boy of fine Nordic stock, Graham Dilley. From Beefy, according to legend: “Let’s give it some humpty.” And so they did. Eighty minutes, 117 runs, talk about ice-rink! Then the inevitable mistake; England 25 runs to the good now.

Great fun – but look, here comes Chris Old, a man with a split pea inside his rib-cage. Unbeknown to the Australians, however, Brearley and his team mates had administered a virtual injection of steel into Old’s spine in the rooms. Like Doug Piranha, Brearley used … sarcasm. (Mind you, by now, everything – absolutely everything – was becoming unbeknown to Hughes, the once and never future genius. “I love the smell of Kim Hughes in the morning!”) Ray Bright finally got his first bowl, roughly two hours after the stable door had been kicked down. Belted, smashed, crushed, just like all the rest – you know, those hacks … Lillee, Alderman, Lawson … “Good thinking, Chief Kimbo!”

Old, who could actually hit a cricket ball damned hard when he wasn’t running from it, lasted about an hour and 29 runs before his injection wore off. Partnership: 67. What had recently been minus 92 was now plus 92. Nice symmetry, but still only enough to drag England’s odds back down to high double figures – 80/1?, 66/1? Something like that.

Dilley, thrashing 56 mainly between third man and cover, had actually outscored Botham during their partnership. Not Old. Upon reaching 39, Botham then inserted one six off Alderman into an otherwise unbroken sequence of 14 consecutive fours, going to 101 with a wild uppercut. In the TMS box, Blowers was sufficiently stirred to (briefly) forget the Kirkstall Lane buses; his voice of mists and mellow fruitfulness saluted Botham’s straight-driven six: “This …is truly batting in the heroic manner!” You could almost hear the growling baritone voice being disinterred from Westminster Abbey. “Never before, in the field of human [fill in convenient blank here], have so many…” And so on and so forth.

And OK, I’ll admit it. I’m guilty too. Here I am, sitting at home at 34 Westbourne Grove, just up the rise from Northcote High, in front of the TV at 2.30am on a freezing July Monday night (start work at 9am Tuesday, theoretically). I and my housemate Steve (“The Big”) Catt, who just two hours earlier had both been mentally knitting in smug anticipation of the gallows, are cheering wildly – unrestrainedly – for England. Well, for Botham. This is no longer a cricket match, no longer even an Ashes Test. No, this has expanded way, way beyond that – now, RIGHT NOW, this is the ultimate acid trip that you just never want to stop. (Err, so I’m told, anyway, Mum …)

Speaking of acid trips, enter England’s No.11, Robert George Dylan Willis – armed with gollywog hairdo and patented “I can see for miles and miles … AND MILES” stare (plus matching thousand-millimetre block shot) – to keep Dr Ian Terrence Leary company at the crease. The Magic Bus careers onwards to who knows where, stuck in its only gear: Top. Another 40-odd runs in the 25 minutes to stumps. Beefy smashing, Bob staring.

Come Tuesday

Next morning, Tuesday 21 July, Day 5 of the trip (“journey” just does not cut it, psychobabblers). Bernard Disken, unable to provoke his own sacking so soon, is still chained to his desk at the Dewsbury Deadbeat, now roiling in an ocean of conflicting miseries and disloyalties, upon which a tiny cork of ridiculous hope now bobs.

All present tense now, folks: very present; ultra tense.

One hammer blow to Beefy, one moment of gloom for Bob. England’s last three wickets have added 221 runs in 165 minutes. Handy.

But look at the reality: Australia needs just 130 in near enough to six hours. Graeme Wood (ah, now there’s a name to bring back memories, happy or otherwise …) smacks Botham’s first two long-hop looseners up the hill to the dressing rooms for four. Over by lunch. Wood edges another Botham loosener to Taylor. (Seems about right …). In comes Australia’s No.3: Chappell, Trevor Chappell. WTF?! Together with Dyson. Dogged resistance. Forget over by lunch; maybe not even over by tea.

Willis tries to bowl up the hill from the Football Stand end. Gets the yips. Australia can win it in no balls! Pulled out of the attack, tears welling. Australia grinds up to 56. As well as Willis, Dilley is bowling rubbish, and Beefy’s shot his bolt, too. With Emburey carrying the drinks, Willey’s off-spin isn’t going to decide matters. Which leaves Brearley with just Chris Old up hill – and someone else (but who?) down dale. Just 75 more to go for Australia, and lunch in 15 minutes. Brearley gives Big Bob a shoulder to cry on and promises to let him bowl from the Kirkstall Lane end, if he will just “dry those cryin’ eyes”.

Willis changes ends

So he does – Bob’s stare is now out to a thousand miles. Roger Daltry’s totally dropped off Bob’s pace – nowhere to be seen! No yips now, and 95mph of pure fury coming down the hill. Too much for Gallant Little Trevor (on this occasion, probably too much for imperious Greg or street-fighting Ian as well – but it would have been nice to have found out, all the same). Two down; Willis gets down into a weird semi-circular chicken breakdance, shortly to become a major dance craze – with the emphasis on “craze”.

One over to lunch. But Bob’s greedy, can’t wait for his entrée – two entrees: Hughes and Yallop both dog it, frankly. 58-4 at the break. In 24 hours, the odds have tightened, somewhat, from 500s. In the words of the unlegendary Peter Landy, it’s now, “$1.85, each of two”.

No lunch for Allan Border. When he appears after the break, he seems haunted, desperate to squeeze some liquid sugar out of the cane in his bat handle. Hard to score runs with a grip that tight, Captain Grumpy: sad, but no surprise, when he blobs out to a jaffa yorker from Old. 65-5.

But John Dyson is still there. He’s been brave and focused when all others have arguably (some might even say, unarguably) been not. In our frigid living room in Northcote, The Big Catt has become a patriot again. Actually, Steve’s downright parochial. He’s not just barracking for Australia; he’s screaming for his old classmate from Jannali Boys High out along Sydney’s Illawarra line. “Go ball, go ball! Stick it up ‘em, Johnny! Nalli High, Nalli High, Nalli High!”

(Actually, I probably made up that last chant. I did so for the most noble of causes: that I may apologise to the alumni of Jannali’s various State schools, most humbly and sincerely to one who was but an 11-year-old girl in 1981. She later rose to be Dux of Jannali Girls High in 1987, and has since flowered into Australia’s current Federal Housing Minister, the glorious Tanya Plibersek – AKA Angelika Slovenska. Should The Greens ever unseat you in Sydney, Tanya – as well they might – I reserve the right to accompany you to Headingley in 2013 for the next instalment of the drama that has no end.)

From Neil Young to Sir Henry Newbolt in 30 mad minutes

Back to earth, back to Leeds 1981: this thing can still be done. All it needs is another hour of composure from Dyson and Rod Marsh, and we’ll have most of the “66, clickety clicks” needed for Australia’s victory. Bingo! Unless Dyson has heard something about Marsh laying an altogether less innocent bet …

The Big Bob show resumes. Unaccountably, tragically, Dyson now loses faith in his measured approach. “He buys a gun, he steals a car, but he don’t get far …” On 68, Johnny Too Bad top-edges a hook off the maniac to Taylor. Six gone now, and barely halfway home.

Taylor’s catch has broken first-class cricket’s all-time record for wicketkeeping dismissals. Add to this statistical Everest the small matter of an impending miracle Test victory, and Old Bob’s River Dancing (a pleasing counterpoint to Big Bob’s chicken-dancing.) The 41-year-old cricketing grandpa feels like he’s 21. “Can’t help it! The boy can’t help it!” (Having raised, however elliptically, the matter of Jayne Mansfield, let me say this. The 1950s adolescent Bob Taylor – along with Little Richard and Derek & Clive, for that matter – is quite welcome to his Yaney, but speaking personally, give me Tanya P. Right … I’ll stop that now.)

Marsh must now rely on Australia’s four bowlers to help him manufacture the outstanding 63 runs. Bacchus doesn’t die wondering; he channels Neil Young. An adrenalised hook off you-know-who traces the steeple arc of St Michael’s Church, but unfortunately returns to the temporal plane within the confines of Headingley, to wit the upstretched hands of Dilley, Bloody Dilley, standing hard-up against the fine-leg boundary rope. “Hey hey, my my…”: whatever the ultimate fate of rock’n’roll, Australia is managing to both burn out and fade away poste haste at Leeds.

Down to just three wickets now, and still 57 runs to the increasingly bad. Erm … make those numbers two and 56. Sybil Fawlty Lawson immediately discovers the bleeding obvious: fishing at length balls while walking backwards to square leg will get you about as far as Spike Milligan walking backwards to Christmas. Taylor swallows the gift. 74-8. In around ten overs Australia has lost 7-19.

Then a minor miracle. Bright and Lillee don’t fancy their chances of getting there with graceful cover drives, authoritative hooks and cuts, or working the ball into gaps. So for four overs – the spell to be accorded to one bowler in the yet-to-be-invented T20 version of the game – they slash, uppercut and hoick 35 glorious, giddy, guilt-free runs. In the bright light shining along the narrow lengths of the green, unpleasant land and across the dark, wintry gloom of its wide brown antipode, the king tide of hysteria now moves the earth: who can ride the wave safest to shore? Down towards the last 20 now, and at this rate of chaos, the game will be won in another two overs.

It is.

Lillee aims another hoick to cow corner off the chicken dancer. “Oh, no…skier to mid on! But wait…it’s Fat Gatt! It’s dropping on him! He can’t get to it!” Two inches above the turf, he bloody well DOES (pies rumbling in Gatt’s violently grounded belly).

Newbolt country here: bumping pitch? tick (Big Bob, for sure); blinding light? tick (by English standards); ten runs to win? (no, sorry about that bit: multiply by two). But yes, last man in. Onto the burning deck steps Terry Alderman. For all that his metronomic bowling feats have obscured the fact, we’re now harshly reminded that he is in only his third Test match. Knees more visibly knocked than usual, his head is protected by a weird helmet, coloured not vivid wattle (to be stained red in his country’s cause) but in the ghastly bleached hue of surrender. Hmmm … not so much Vitai Lampada as Mortis Imminentis.

But – don’t ask how – Tezza survives the remainder of the madman’s over. Bright takes a single off Old from the other end. To quote Sir Humphrey: “Was that wise, Minister?” Alderman edges Botham to second slip. Old drops it! Next ball: ditto. DITTO, BLOODY DITTO!

So it’s all clear now. Bright will take the spree killer for five sliced fours off the next over, and England will wake up to find that the last 24 hours was a dream, a hoax. That should hurt for a decade or three… Cue The Iceman, Steve Waugh.

But first, Alderman has three more Old balls to negotiate. Scoreless draw: Old can’t find Alderman’s stumps or pads, and for all his groping, Tez can’t tickle the ball any more. So now, 19 to win. Has Bright got those five slashes in him?

No – in a sad, short word, say it again: No.

Big Bob astral travels through his zone down the Headingley hill, leaps into the bowling action so neatly parodied by Gooch and flames down a yorker that uproots Bright’s middle stump as neatly as a dentist pulling the tooth of a 7-year-old. Well, all the Pomeranians are chicken-dancing now: Willis, Beefy and all of the Rosencrantzes and all of the Guildensterns too, even Sir Geoff – all except the bearded Ayatollah Brearley, who merely smiles the enigmatic smile. Up on the players’ balcony, I rather imagine that another captain (so-called) is crying “96 teardrops”, as two of his “comrades” send anonymous emissaries scuttling down to Ladbrokes.

Fleet Street takes one for the Land of Hope and Glory

In the TMS box, Blowers gushes: “tre-MEN-dous excitement at Headingley!’ – bleedingly obvious but gloriously in the mood. Alongside him, Fred Trueman lugubriates: “Ah joost doon’t knoow what’s gooin’ on art there.” Unlike the Chinese, Fiery has been condemned to live in modern times, and for a further two decades to come, all the rest of us will be condemned to hear him tell us about it. Call up Chris Farlowe and The Stones, I say.

Willis, totally unable to cast off his mania, closes proceedings with a hilarious TV tirade against Fleet Street’s backstabbing cricket writers. With the Toxteth riots having been flung from the front pages by today’s events and Charles and Di about to begin their Royal fairytale, these hacks well enough know their owners and editors. Amidst the rampant Churchillian euphoria, they will have no choice but to lie back and think of England for now, and sheath their poison pens for later. Being Blighty, that time will return soon enough.

Bright was bowled at 3.20pm BST – exactly 24 hours after Bob Taylor had subsided meekly to Alderman and left Botham alone with Dilley, Old and Willis. As assiduously as The Ramones tried to avoid expressions of any emotions – heaven forbid, regret – I do seem to remember these lyrics somewhere: “Twenty, twenty, 24 hours ago… I want to be sedated.”


And so the 1981 Ashes series was now tied. And then, beyond the Royal Wedding, to Edgbaston, where no one on either side could score 50, and Australia needed just 151 to get back the series lead. On 29-2, England’s leader shifted John Emburey to deep square leg for a Willis bumper, and Austalia’s “leader” riposted to the next delivery with a precise, flat-trajectory aerial hook shot to self-same Emburey – who did verily hold it. Whereupon the serial cricketing mercenary J.E. himself tied up Border and Yallop in knots of agonised introspection till, with less than 50 needed, he got both of them. Enter the laughing clown Botham, who huffed and puffed and blew down Australia’s remaining wickets with five essentially unremarkable straighties at the cost of one run. Australia 30 short, and England now up 2-1.

At Old Trafford, Australia got the early jump, as England collapsed again. But then Golden Boy’s new “positive” batting approach worked about as well as Malcolm Turnbull’s hunt for the golden email, and 30 overs later England were back on top. The droopy Tavare then dropped anchor and did his square-leg shuffle for a month or two, long enough to allow the earthquake Botham to shatter Australia in an hour or two. The great DKL coughed up 22 runs in one over, 3 of them – to his eternal shame – conceded to the limpet Tavare.

So, with a mere 500 (rather than the scary 130 or 150) to win, Australia remembered all too late that some of its number could actually bat. Yallop found a heart to go with all of his beautiful shots, and made a hundred that would have been glorious if it didn’t seem so damned irrelevant. But when Border then stared down the pain of his newly broken finger for seven hours, and Marsh and Lillee hung on grimly with him, suddenly the spectre of wondrous history rose upon a distant horizon. The Gambling Gropers couldn’t quite stay the distance with Mosman’s proud Queenslander, though, and England sealed the Ashes.

There was one last gratuitous infection to the visitors’ (largely self-inflicted) wounds. Australia (actually, pare that collective noun back to “brave Border plus Lillee and Alderman” – 81 wickets between them in six Tests) looked to have England’s measure in the epilogue at The Oval. Then Geoff Boycott (“who’da picked Boycs for cheat?”) accidentally-on-purpose dropped a sitter from Dirk Welham. Australia’s putative future captain then pondered acquiring his debut century sufficiently overlong to allow England to escape with an underserved draw and win the series 3–1. Dirk Welham, of course, was scarcely heard from again.

The 1981 Ashes was the sort of Test series that an Australian would love to forget about entirely, but you just know you can’t. And all because of that ridiculous rule about calling play off two minutes before the sun came back out on that Saturday night at Headingley. Well, that’s our story – and we’re stuck with it.

About Tony Roberts

Favourites list: Food: whatever I cook; Drink: whatever my doctor allows; Music: refer 'Soul Time' (pres. Vince 'The Prince' Peach 3PBS-FM, plus Soul Au Go Go at The Laundry, first Saturday each month); Movie: love that Cinema Nova discount card!; TV show: call me Don Draper, if you like (or David Brent, if not); Footy teams: Melbourne Victory (summer), Coolangatta, AFLQ (hols), Brisbane Lions (forever), Western Bulldogs (for now); Player: refer 2009 Footy Almanac Round 18 (WB V Freo); Pet: Ferdy (JRT - as per previous reference)


  1. johnharms says

    You know Tony, there is a very 1981 feel to your piece. I just wish you’d mentioned Adam and the Ants, and that England was closer to Dickens than Hornby in those days.

    A mighty read. I just need a Bex and a lie down.


  2. Tony – that was great. I thought I was reading a novel. I remember thinking after that loss that Australia would never again beat England in England. It was devastating and, I believe, is still at the root of Australia’s wobbles when chasing small totals.

  3. Steve Fahey says

    Thnaks Tony, an absolute cracker of an article.

    Coming not long after the Pies losing the 1977 GF reply and then 1979 and 1980 GFs, I didn’t think that I could feel so desolate from any other sport, but Headingley 1981 proved otherwise. Who was to know that the Pies would lose the 1981 GF not long after, after leading by 21 points just before 3/4 time. A character-building few years !!!

    Watching Kim Hughes shield Yallop from the strike is THE lowpoint of my cricket-watching life. Never seen anything like it, and hope never to again. It’s worth remembering recent history that Graeme Smith wasn’t always shielded from the strike in Sydney when he had one functioning arm !!!

  4. Tony (or someone enlightened),
    Can you elaborate on Boycc’s dropped catch please?

  5. Peter Flynn says

    Brilliant Tony.
    Spot on comments by others above.
    Pity it brings up such bad memories as a 14 year old watching it in Geelong.
    I believe Tony is right about Boycott.
    He dropped Wellham on 99 at mid on (I think) in the 6th test. Dirk went on to make 103 or so on debut. This was in the 2nd innings of the match.
    It is my understanding that Boycott admitted later that he dropped it on purpose.
    There was some offering from him about feeling sorry for Dirk potentially being dismissed for 99 in his first test.
    This was a fate that befell Arthur Chipperfield at Nottingham in 1934.
    Was he covering up for dropping a dolly?

    Prior to 2005, this test was used by the Beebs as the ‘go to’ test whenever a protracted rain delay occurred.
    As a result, I have seen it way too many times.
    Botham and Dilley took advantage of tired Australian bowlers. KJ Hughes had a shocker as captain.

  6. Tony Roberts says

    No Peter, I can’t have it that Kimberley John (Chris Ryan’s ‘Golden Boy’) had a shocker at Leeds – by contrast, this match (and his hook shot in the following Test at Edgbaston) were the apotheosis of his captaincy. Never hand out leadership to those who crave it for its own sake.

    Because of his overweening ambition, combined with all the backwash of WSC, it took another 3.5 years for Hughes to admit the obvious, and get da hell outta there. (NB It was probably at Edgbaston that Hughes shielded Yallop – but hey, the facts shouldn’t spoil ALL good stories.)

    In the last at The Oval, Sir Geoff may have dropped Welham as early as 18 in the 2nd dig, but whatever his score, there was a very marked (and understandable) reluctance by all the Poms to get started in their own 2nd innings.

    To Steve, I too remember Ashman and Buckley’s running goals bang on 3QT in the ’81 GF. I found them both character-building AND enjoyable.

    And to JTH, I think the Ramones took something a bit stronger than Bex to get sedated – Nembies, anyone? I take it that , long agoyour reference to Hornby is about Francis Thompson’s ‘At Lords’ (‘my Hornby and my Barlow…’)?

  7. Tony Roberts says

    That is: ‘my Hornby and my Barlow, long ago..’ of course. Sorry.

  8. Bernard Disken says


    Glad I made such an impact.

    If you think I was miserable then, imagine what I’m like 26 years on.

    As a Leeds United fan I do have problems now we’re in the Third Division.

    But I still find consolations such as a mediocre England side winning back the Ashes this year and Dewsbury RL going unbeaten for the whole season.

    Bernard Disken

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