Having retained the Ashes in 1978/79 in Australia, when the impact of the Kerry Packer series had been felt disproportionately by the hosts, England were determined to prove that it was no fluke in the glorious summer of 1981.
The series started well enough for the tourists as they won the first test at Trent Bridge, comfortably enough, by four wickets. With the second test, at Lords, ending in a draw, things were really looking good for the Aussies. They were even better placed at the end of the third day’s play in the third test at Headingley – having made 401-9 declared, they had bowled England out for 174, and having enforced the follow on had the hosts on 6-1, with Graham Gooch adding a duck to his 2 from the first innings.
However, they had not reckoned on the new life that Ian Botham was able to draw on since being relieved of the England captaincy following his record of 12 games, 8 draws, 4 losses and no wins. In their tempestuous second innings England were at 105-5, still needing 122 to make Australia bat again, when Botham came to join Geoffrey Boycott at the crease. In sharing stands of 28 (with Boycott), 117 (Graham Dilley), 67 (Chris Old) and even 37 with Bob Willis, Botham finished on 149 n.o. and Australia needed 130 to win the test match.
Still, 130 was no sweat for Australia. And they proved it, getting to 56 -1 with little incident of note. It was at this point that England skipper Mike Brearley switched Willis to the Kirkstall Lane end in order for him to take advantage of the downhill slope. It was as if Botham’s knock and /or his own part in the England innings has imbued Willis with super human capabilities as he tore into the Aussies, leaving them reeling in the pavilion as they capitulated to 111 all out with his own figures reading 15.1 – 3 – 43 – 8. Stupendous.
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In the fourth test at Edgbaston, England’s below par batting performance in both innings left them in danger of undoing their Leeds heroics. Batting first, their 189 left them 69 runs behind Australia at the start of their second innings. A total of 219 meant that the Australians needed the comparatively modest sum of 151 to win the game and take a 2-1 lead with 2 games left. This time it was Botham the whirlwind as his 5-11 helped scuttle Australia for 121 – thus it was England who won the game, by 29 runs, to take a 2-1 lead with 2 matches left.
Next stop was Old Trafford. Batting first, England made a respectable, if not awe inspiring 231 (Botham getting a duck). However, even this was too hot for Australia who struggled to 130 all out. Thus a lead of 101 for England on the first innings. This was to prove decisive. In their second innings, in which Botham scored 118 from 102 balls including 13 fours and 6 sixes (Tavare, Knott and Emburey also made 50’s), England made a much more challenging 404 all out. In order to win, Australia needed to scale a mountain (506).
Having made it to 210-5 at the end of the fourth day, Australia held on to the hope that they could keep the series alive by eking out the draw that would see them needing a win at the Oval to draw the series. Border and Marsh offered stubborn resistance, taking the score along to 296 when Marsh was dismissed for a typically robust 47. England were now into the tail. In his own, inimitable, style Dennis Lillee assisted Border most effectively, making 28 in over an hour, but the other bowlers were dismissed fairly cheaply (although they all hung around with ARB) as England bowled them out for 402 to win by 103 runs taking an unassailable 3-1 series lead with one to play.
The series ended anti-climactically at the Oval. Australia making 352 and 344 with England scoring 314 and 261-7 in reply. Dennis Lillee took the man of the match award for his overall match stats of 61.4 – 14 – 159 – 11. So the series ended with a tame draw, but the rest of it, particularly that Monday and Tuesday in Leeds, is seared on the memory of anybody who witnessed it.