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The Ashes Years

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Adam Mountford Adam Mountford | 12:10 UK time, Sunday, 14 June 2009

During the summer of 1981 I was probably the only nine-year-old in Britain annoyed when Bob Willis bowled England to a miraculous victory at Headingley to level the Ashes series.

You see my older brother was supporting England and therefore of course I had to go for the opposition. After the opening Test matches at Trent Bridge and Lord's it appeared my faith in Kim Hughes's side was well-placed and when England were forced to follow on in Leeds, I felt sure that bragging rights in the Mountford household would at last belong to me.

What followed of course has now gone down in sporting history as England's incredible fightback at Headingley, dramatic victory in Birmingham and subsequent Ashes-clinching success at Old Trafford turned me, as I'm sure it did many other nine-year-olds, from being a casual cricket watcher to being a cricket obsessive.

So I for one will be tuned to Five Live Sport from 2100 BST on Monday evening for a new series as Arlo White presents "The Ashes Years" looking back on that incredible summer of almost 30 years ago. Arlo will be joined by some of those who played in 1981 including Willis, Mike Gatting who I remember taking a brilliant and crucial catch in that Headingley victory, and Australian Geoff Lawson, who Ian Botham struck for four to reach his hundred in Leeds.

Although many of my memories from that year come from watching the drama unfold on BBC Television, who can forget for example Richie Benaud's description of yet another Botham six: "It's gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again".

This was also the summer where I first discovered the magic of Test Match Special. I can still recall the very words Henry Blofeld used when describing the end of that sensational third Test: "Bright's bowled, the middle stump's out of the ground, England have won".

I remember that afternoon when Willis produced his 8-43. I was forced by my inconsiderate mother to accompany her on a shopping trip. All I wanted to do was keep in touch in whatever way I could to the drama unfolding at Headingley . Whenever we were in the car I forced her to tune the radio to TMS, at any opportunity I would sneak off to the nearest television shop to take a glance of the action and I even remember forcing a sales assistant in one shop to let me look at Ceefax so I could check out the latest scorecard.

I was totally gripped by that cricketing summer. Although the recent BBC time travel drama 'Ashes to Ashes'set in 1981 takes its name from the early eighties David Bowie record, as far as I was concerned there was only one Ashes on my mind that year.

There was quite a lot going on I seem to recall that summer - the shooting of Pope John Paul II , the start of the Toxteth riots, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was on at the cinema and of course the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana took place a few days after the Headingley Test. But for me July 29 was marked not by getting ready for a Royal street party, but by getting prepared for the Edgbaston Test which began next day.

By the fourth Test of that series my aim was not to miss a single ball of the game, so I carried a portable radio with me on the rare occasion when I was forced to leave the sitting-room. Then come close of play I would be straight outside where my brother would be Bob Willis thundering in from the garden fence end and I would be Kim Hughes trying to repel him. I was always a big fan of Kim Hughes but to this day I have no idea why.

As I grew to understand the game more I realised that his captaincy in this series was open to a lot of criticism especially when compared with that of Mike Brearley who returned to the side at the age of 39 to mastermind one of sport's great comebacks.

As a series, 1981 seemed to have everything and until the Ashes of 2005 I thought it may never be surpassed as a cricketing event. There was personal triumph after adversity with Ian Botham both resigning and being sacked following his pair in the second Test at Lord's when he returned to the famous Long Room to silence. Yet a few days later his barnstorming 149 at Headingley rescued the series and opened the way for Willis to be the hero on the final day.

Ian Botham hooks Geoff Lawson for four during the Headingley Test

There was a young hero in Graham Dilley who actually outscored Botham during their thrilling partnership in Leeds and held a crucial catch on the boundary towards the climax of the game. And as I mentioned there was the return of the grey-haired genius Brearley, about who Rodney Hogg famously remarked: "He had a degree in people". England were at one stage quoted as 500-1 against to win that Test match and after pulling off the miracle victory the England team were forced to beg their opponents for some of champagne the Australians had on ice for what they believed would be a comfortable victory.

Headingley may be the game which is most widely remembered but the England win at Edgbaston was equally amazing.

In a low-scoring game where no batsman scored a half-century, England secured a 29-run win thanks to an incredible spell of 5-1 from Botham as Australia seemed destined to take the advantage again. Then at Old Trafford, Botham hooked the Aussies out of the series with a brilliant 118 including several swats off Dennis Lillee played with his eyes closed described by Richie Benaud as "like he was swatting a fly". The Ashes were England's again and Botham was a national hero.

Those summer months left an indelible mark on me. For ever more the number 149 means just one thing, Botham's score at Headingley. I would bore family and friends with tales of those who played more minor parts in the series such as Mike Whitney, Dirk Welham, Chris Tavare and Paul Parker. Or I would test fellow cricket lovers with 1981 trivia such as: "Did you know England used three different wicket keepers during that series ... Downton, Taylor and Knott?".

But more than anything else that summer of 1981 was not about statistics or trivia - it was about amazing sporting drama featuring great personalities - Botham, Willis, Lillee, Marsh to name but a few. It was about a team coming back from the dead and producing the most unexpected of comebacks.

And at the end of that summer I didn't even mind that my older brother, yet again, was the one who had backed the right side.



  • Comment number 1.

    I have emailed and written to the BBC numerous times without reply.
    They missed a trick in 2005. I just hope they don't make the same mistake again.

    Please show the brilliant 'Bodyline' series again.
    As far as I recall, it hasn't been repeated since its original showing.

  • Comment number 2.

    In 1981, I was six, and learning to score for my dad's cricket team, the Unpredictables, which played on Sunday afternoons in South London.
    I was also an increasingly devoted Ian Botham fan.
    The Sunday of the Edgbaston test proved all too much.
    As I watched my dad's team from the sidelines, pencilling in the scores, we had TMS on the radio at the same time.
    When Botham suddenly started storming through the Australian lower order at the same time as a mid-innings collapse in south London, I couldn't cope with the complications of filling in the scorebook at the same time. To this day, the scorebook records that a certain Botham, in increasingly hysterical pencilled letters, unaccountably picked up a clutch of wickets for the Unpredictables that day, despite never playing for the team.
    Thankfully, the opposition scorer, a kindly woman, seemed to keep things in order though I have no real memory of the match, in contrast with the Edgbaston Test which is preserved in BBC celluloid.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm only 18 and so will be interested to see as I have only seriously watched cricket since the 2001 ashes

  • Comment number 4.

    I'd like to echo that call to repeat the Bodyline series again, it really was superb

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks for the great memories. I was 3, almost 4, years old, when England won the ashes back in 1981 so have no memories of it.

    In the coming ashes memories programmes I hope you talk to as few people as possible and simply play as much archive commentary from TMS a you can. Just let the commentators do the talking and allow us to relive the history.

    I remember the 2005 ashes. I had tickets for Saturday of the Lords test but due to heavy rain and recovering from being in hospital, I took my parents advice and did not travel up to Lords. Late in the day it dried up and they were able to play 25 overs. I got no refund. On a more positive note though I was getting a train back to Surrey on the 4th day of the Edgbaston test and had to change trains on route. Australia needed very few runs to win but were down to their last wicket.

    Every tunnel I went through, where I lost reception, I just hoped that Australia didn't get the runs or England get the wicket. It was really exciting and thankfully it didn't happen. On reaching Gatwick I rush down the platform to get a spot with good reception and the next moment England got the wicket they needed, with Australia losing by 2 runs. That was the match which helped England to win the series and one train journey I won't forget.

  • Comment number 6.

    A couple of memories stand out for me:

    1 For Leeds when my boss , who was leaving the company, abandoned all pretence of work and went and sat in his company car in the car park switched on the radio and listened to the end of the match. Car reg? ALK 235S !

    @ The Saturday of the Old Trafford game- I took my toddler daughter for a short swim at the indoor pool. Botham had just come in as I switched off the radio for us to start swimming. When we came out I could not believe the commentator describing his century!

  • Comment number 7.

    Your blog revived memories of that wonderful series when Test Match cricket was respected and watched around the world. In those days we could watch it all day on the BBC on the telly, and we often did.

    So why oh why has Jonathan Agnew decided to sound enthusiastic about 20/20, a simply appalling burlesque of the once great game? It's a disgrace, it really is.

    What would Sir Learie Constantinople, or Jim Arlott have to say about the current BBC Cricket correspondent's failure to stand firm over the issue?

    He should go, and go now. I'd resign if I were BBC cricket correspondent. It would be the only way forward.

  • Comment number 8.

    Leave Johnathan Agnew alone, suggesting he should resign is ludicrous. There is nothing wrong with 20\20 - it is nothing more than a variation of the game. No doubt, L A OCIDEAN dreams of : 2\3 initials to denote amateurs\gentlemen on the teamsheet, separate changing rooms for professionals, OXBRIDGE captains, Test matches with no play on a Sunday and a start time at Lords of 11:30 so the chaps can get the steam train from Winchester and arrive in good time to see the start of play. Johnathan Agnew has always been prepared to voice concerns over issues in the game when he has felt the need to even when he has appeared to be out of step with the various governing bodies of the game or the BBC. It is you L A OCIDEAN who should go and go now before you embarrass yourself any further.

  • Comment number 9.

    I have given this subject some thought overnight, and I am distressed by the huge outcry that my demand for Agnew's resignation has caused.
    Perhaps I went a little too far ... Agnew is not personally responsible for 20/20 cricket and I now feel he should remain in his post.

    But the fact remains that the deplorable spectacle of cricketers slogging at virtually every ball, dancing girls, popular music combos blaring out 'music', and transvestite spectators chanting like a football crowd, has taken Lords to the depths of depravity that would have Sir Colin Cowadry spinning in his grave.

  • Comment number 10.

    I remember 1981 well; and for me, despite the excitment of four years ago, the 1981 series is STILL the greatest Ashes series. Apart from the obvious thrills and spills of big-hitting and fast-bowling, there was a far more subtle sub-plot as well.

  • Comment number 11.

    Bodyline was a great series. Very Australian and historically flawed, but still bring it back!!!!
    As for 1981, I was on holiday on the Kent coast when England turn defeat in to Victory. Whenever I smell the sea air mixed with fish & chips I think of 'Bothams' Ashes.

  • Comment number 12.

    twenty20 cricket is proper cricket, end of story.
    it is just a shortened version of the game to try and appeal to the younger generation, myself included.
    It should not, and never will be allowed, to displace test cricket, but it is just a shorterned version.
    I for one have thoroughly enjoyed the tournament so far, and anyone other than indian fans would have been mesmerized by the england game last night.

  • Comment number 13.

    yes, please for 'Bodyline' again :o)

  • Comment number 14.

    I was 15 in '81 and have plenty of happy memories of The Ashes and that almost totally carefree time of my life, but enough of such nonsense. It made me laugh though when, in '05 Rodney Marsh was talking on TMS and gave an account of upon hearing the 500/1 price at the bookies, some, or all, I can't exactly remember, of the Australian team put a few quid on England. They didn't remember until a day or so later. He never said how much they won. If there's a petition going, put my name down for Bodyline, too

  • Comment number 15.

    1981 and Headingly very special memories indeed.

    18 year-old apprentice working in a factory. Literally the whole 120-employee shopfloor were listening to TMS and the massive cheers at the fall of every Aussie wicket.

    Memories of 85 were a scratch Australian side stripped of all their best players. Kim Hughes's infamous rebel South African 84 adventure taking with him Alderman, Rackerman, Hogg, Dyson, Smith, McGuire, Hohns, Rixon... most of whom were never to play for Australia again. Gooch, Robinson, Gower etc... cashed in accordingly.


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