Botham 1981

Headingley magic, 38 years apart

Two England all-rounders scripted two of the most outstanding Ashes wins in the history of the competition, both in Headingley. On the anniversary of the 1981 win, we look back at the two innings.

"It changed my life overnight. I think Ben's life will never be the same," Ian Botham said after witnessing Ben Stokes do the unthinkable on day five of the 2019 Headingley Test against Australia. 

Of course, there's no one better placed to understand what Stokes felt after he blitzed an unforgettable 135*, sharing a 76-run stand with No.11 Jack Leach, who made just one, to help England chase down 359 in the final innings, having posted just 67 in the first.

Stokes engulfed by emotional team-mates after his timeless epic
Stokes engulfed by emotional team-mates after his timeless epic

At the very same venue 38 years before Stokes' epochal innings, Botham had done something very similar. Following on after conceding a first-innings lead of 227 to the Australians in 1981, England were 135/7, staring down the barrel of heavy defeat. 

Botham and Graham Dilley combined to stitch together a 117-run partnership that helped England take a lead, but with Dilley being dismissed, the host's hopes seemed to sink. 

Botham, though, continued unfazed. What started out as a match-saving knock turned into a match-defining one as he added 67 and 37 runs with the last two batsmen. He finished on 149* off 148 balls, smashing 27 fours and a six. 

Yet, the target was a modest one. Chasing 130 seemed easy for an Australian line-up that had posed 401/9d in the first innings. 

But Botham's innings had injected some much-needed confidence in the England camp, especially in the No.11 batsman, Bob Willis. The home bowlers, led by Willis, steamed in on day five with a handful of runs to defend and a massive batting line-up to breach.

Willis ended his career with 325 Test wickets, but none as important as the eight he snared on that day in Headingley. "People said I was in another world," Willis said later to the Yorkshire Post. "In a cocoon of concentration; the modern cliche would be ‘in the zone’. I didn’t want to be distracted by having to set the field or by celebrating wickets; I just wanted to get back to my mark as fast as I could."

From 56/1, the Australian innings unravelled as Willis unsettled them with the relentless backing of his skipper, Mike Brearley, who asked him to 'just bowl as fast as you can'. Australia were bowled out for 111 as England completed a miraculous turnaround. 

Botham's batting with the lower order remains one of the greatest fightbacks
Botham's batting with the lower order remains one of the greatest fightbacks

The effort by Stokes in 2019 was reminiscent of Botham's own heroics, not least in the fact that they both shared important last-wicket stands with No.11 batsmen: Willis 2 (9) and Leach 1 (17). 

The authority with which they went about their innings instilled belief in their teams. Botham went on to become an all-time great and he sees similar things for Stokes. 

A silent witness to these miraculous knocks was the Headingley stadium. For a ground that has witnessed two Test triple tons by Don Bradman, a suave triple century by Jon Edrich and Geoffrey Boycott's 100th first-class hundred, these two matches stand out for the drama, the anguish and the ecstasy.