That it is the 30th anniversary of the Headingley Test Match of 1981 will be known to anyone who has even a passing interest in the game of cricket, and its historical significance is thoroughly merited. Not only was this only the second occasion on which a side following on had won a Test Match, it represented the finest hour of one of this country's greatest ever sportsman. Ian Botham was a man capable of passages of genius with either bat or ball, and after a barren run while shackled by the responsibilities of captaincy, his return to the ranks under the leadership of Mike Brearley was met with a rapid upturn in fortunes that has left a vivid mark on mortality.
This series took place a year before I was born, but like many I've made a point of watching and reading as much as I can on the subject, since it tells us so much about the nature of competitive sport. Statistics are much like a bikini, in the sense that while what they reveal is interesting, they also have a tendency to conceal something vital. When did the player make his runs or take wickets? Were they in tame draws, at the back end of affairs when the game was already up or did the contribution of this single player actually make the difference between who won and lost?
One of my first cricketing memories as a kid and arguably the greatest innings I ever watched live was when Graham Gooch carried his bat for 154 not out on a sphincterish Headingley pitch against the West Indies in 1991. Now in statistical terms there will be much greater knocks than that, and Gooch himself had plundered 333 against and Indian attack led by an ancient Kapil Dev but a year earlier. However, the quality of the bowling he faced (Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Patterson - ouch!!) and the fact that his contribution essentially won the game for an average side against a very good one (the next highest score in that England innings was 27) makes this combination of skill and bravery far more significant than substantially higher scores against dishwater opposition on plasticine pitches.
Now Botham was of an altogether different mould (it is fair to say that he and Gooch did not always see eye to eye), but had this knack of producing his greatest performances when they really mattered. Perhaps given a certain degree of licence by the possession of two strings to his bow, 'Beefy' was a man looking to play a positive shot to every ball he faced, while then seeking to take a wicket with every delivery. For that reason, he could be a frustrating batsman who got out to loose strokes, or an expensive luxury when bowling on an off-day. However, those occasions where he got either or both disciplines spot on invariably came when they counted most.
Nor is it unfair to suggest that 'Beefy' was never captaincy material, precisely because of his individualistic nature. He was by no means a surly 'pima donna', but getting the best out of the man meant leaving him the hell alone to do his thing, while being prepared to forgive the odd moment that did not tie in with the context of a match situation. In Mike Brearley, Botham found a captain who 'understood' and would encourage him to hit the ball hard or bowl as fast as possible. His 6-95 in the Australia's first innings of that Headingley Test Match is forgotten, partly because it came in the context of the tourists' imposing 401-9 declared, and also when set against the drama that followed later. He subsequently scored 50 in England's first innings at nearly a run a ball, and was the only batsman to offer significant resistance as they were skittled for 174 and forced to follow on.
Being the main man had clearly cramped Botham's style (he had made a pair in the previous match at Lord's and left the field not to polite applause but deathly silence), and that six wicket return was his first five-for in 14 months. The Brearley effect cannot be underestimated in the way the match unfolded, nor can the contributions of Graham Dilley, Chris Old and Bob Willis. Without the former pair's 56 and 29 respectively while at the opposite end to Botham, setting even the modest target of 130 would not have been possible. Then Willis, perceived as being in the autumn of his career, produced a devastating spell of fast, accurate and intimidating bowling, walking away with a return of 8-43 off 15 overs that speaks for itself.
However, it is Botham's contribution that is given most focus and rightly so. Test Cricket was played in an altogether more prosaic fashion back then, and the notion of one man scoring 149 not out at a run a ball bordered on the ridiculous. There were drives, hooks, cuts, pulls, top edges and outrageous heaves over mid-wicket and mid-on. Richie Benaud, who for my money is the greatest sports commentator of all time, offered a memorable observation on a mammoth six off Terry Alderman, who was himself a top-notch Test Match bowler, "that's gone straight into the confectionary stall, and out again".
That line never ceases to make me laugh when I hear it, and watching this innings illustrates what set Botham apart from others who contributed to the outcome of the match. Having been seven wickets down and 90 runs behind following on, he and Dilley as a partnership of equals dragged the possibility of an England win back into the equation. However, what Beefy did that nobody else could was plant the seeds of doubts in Australian minds that had been certain of impending victory up to that point. More than simply scoring runs that influenced the end result, he changed the fundamental dynamics of the match, enabling his partners at the crease to hit out with him, then for Willis to charge in like a man possessed at a batting line-up that had never believed they would be out there, let alone chasing a meaningful total to win.
Further evidence of this came in the Fourth Test at Edgbaston, where Kim Hughes' side capitulated when requiring only 150 to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Botham, given the ball as second change, produced an insane spell of five wickets for just one run, as the Australians collapsed from the relative comfort of 105-4 to 121 all out. Then at Old Trafford, he smashed six sixes in 118 off only 102 balls as England took an unassailable 3-1 lead. Not only had he produced a series of performances that only a genius at the peak of his powers could, he had broken the will of his opponents and left them caught in the headlights. Hughes resigned the Australian captaincy three years later in an emotional press conference where he was visibly shed more than a few tears. One wonders how much of this was down to the manner in which one man altered the course of sporting history.
Cricket is fairly rare in the sense that although it is a team game, it essentially revolves around a series of individual contests between batsman and bowler. Few players in the history of the sport have relished or made the most of these battles in the way that Botham did (Shane Warne is a modern-day instance of a man who won matches in the mind as much as anywhere else). The ability to get away with outrageous shots and take wickets with dreadful deliveries is one which owes a lot to something one cannot pick up in a coaching manual. All of this of course has very live relevance in the present day.
Kevin Pietersen's 202 not out against India on Friday was a welcome boost both to the England team and a player who has suffered a prolonged dip in form over the last 12 months. This was a knock somewhat out of kilter with the usually dominant nature of his batting and required patience, a degree of fortune and real character before the security of a score on the board and a tiring attack allowed him to unload with both barrels. His last 50 runs came from only 25 balls. and was the sort of cricket that only a man under a flash of pure inspiration could produce, Genius of the type that he has very rarely comes along, so it would make sense to forgive the odd indiscretion and enjoy it while it lasts. KP is back to his best, and if he can contribute a tenth to this series of what Ian Botham achieved 30 years ago, then England could well knock over the side ranked number one in the world.
Take care, see you tomorrow, and get a look at the links - you'll enjoy them...