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Ian Botham overturns the odds of 500-1 to beat Australia

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Last updated on 20 Jul 2023 | 08:07 AM
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Ian Botham overturns the odds of 500-1 to beat Australia

On this day in 1981, the all-rounder smashed 149 runs to power England to a famous win at Headingley and level the Ashes

History has repeatedly been evident to the fact that only by dissipating the fear of failure can one set a course for triumphant performances. And it is for the same reason that the 1981 Headingley Test between England and Australia has found its place in the cricketing folklore.  

Though, when the England team checked out of their hotel on Day 4 of the third Test of the 1981 Ashes, they were more deprived of hope than fear. Day 3 had ended with the Aussies forcing a follow-on over England and Graham Gooch getting out for a duck as England were 6/1. The match was very likely to end on Day 4 itself, and spending more bucks to book the room for an extra day was an unwise decision.      

But, when one has nothing to lose, they can only win.

A silent dressing room conflict, the England cricket board’s uncertainty in selecting a leader, the brutality of English media and a disgraceful display of the odds against the hosts on the Headingley electronic scoreboard - all had set up for a conclusion to the Test match that would be remembered for ages.

The man at the centre of it all, Ian Botham, had his own conflicts going on. The vibrant all-rounder was given the onus of captaincy for three ODI series and the first two Test matches against Australia. And after England had lost the ODIs 2-1 and were down 1-0 in the Test series, Botham had relinquished the leadership role.

Beyond his failure as a captain, Botham was also suffering from a lack of confidence. After a below-average display at Lord’s, Botham was given cold treatment by his teammates while the media lambasted him for not leading by example. This had taken a visible toll on the player, who had dropped the crucial catch of John Dyson on 57 at Headingley as the opening batter would go on to make a century in the first innings.

However, on July 20, 1981, the Gods had decided to remove every shred of doubt from Botham as the batter went on a rampage never seen before. What's more interesting was the timing of it all. The English media is infamous for their savage methods of trolling the home side, the best example of which was the odds of a 500-1 England win displayed by Ladbrokes on the Headingley electronic scoreboard. The iconic sight was later used in Mike Brearley's “Phoenix from the Ashes” book.

Before English batter Geoffrey Boycott and skipper Brearley had taken the crease, Australia's Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh had put their bets on an England win in jest. No one was wrong, though. England were reduced to 135/7, staring at innings defeat with Botham and Graham Dilley at the crease. A loss at Headingley would see the hosts go 0-2 down with three more matches to go. 

Botham's words to an incoming Dilley were, "Right then, let's have a bit of fun!". While many would brush it away, branding the Englishman as cocky, Botham meant every letter of his statement.

The all-rounder went on to score a lightning-quick 149-run knock of 148 balls, which had a whopping 27 boundaries and one famous six - a six that Richie Benaud had described as "going straight into the confectionery stall and out again".

A batting adventure that had both whack job and creativity, Botham hit every ball as hard as he could with a bat that was borrowed by Gooch. From the other end, Dilley had given the ideal initial support as the duo would make a 117-run stand before Botham was joined by Chris Old and eventually Bob Willis, all of whose job was to keep the all-rounder on the strike as much as possible.    

Botham and Willis remained at the crease at the end of Day 4, with the team’s immediate concern being finding a hotel to stay for the night. England ended their second innings on 356 to hand Australia a target of 130, which seemed achievable at the time.

However, Bob Willis' 8/43 in the second innings dismantled the Australian order upside down, and England won the match to level the series 1-1. Such was the impact of Man of the Match Botham’s innings that England went on to win the series 3-1.  

Botham would get five wickets at Edgbaston, six at the Oval, and score another century to end the 1981 Ashes with 399 runs and 34 wickets and consequently be named the Man of the Series.

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