Even by his standards, Ian Botham crammed a lot into the 12 months before the 1986-87 Ashes tour: a charity walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End, an eventful and harrowing trip to the Caribbean, a two-month ban in the English summer after he had admitted smoking cannabis, and his resignation from Somerset after the county had sacked Viv Richards and Joel Garner.
On the field, Botham returned from his ban and showed the nation what they had been missing. Dismissing New Zealand’s Bruce Edgar with the first ball of his comeback, Botham then moved above Dennis Lillee’s world-record haul of 355 Test wickets shortly after. But there was more to come. A stunning 59 not out from just 36 balls demonstrated he still had the ability to entertain. Graham Gooch was right to ask who was writing Beefy’s scripts.
Botham’s best years were behind him but England skipper Mike Gatting knew how important the all-rounder would be in Australia. “He always seemed to me to want to prove something in Australia,” wrote Gatting in his autobiography. “And with rumours rife that this would be his last tour, he would undoubtedly want to go out on a high note.”
For a while, the chances of Botham going out on a high seemed slim. A defeat against Queensland was followed up by a win over South Australia, but two more wobbly batting displays in a rain-affected draw with Western Australia left the press distinctly unimpressed. “We had not covered ourselves with glory at the start of the tour,” writes Botham in his autobiography, Don’t Tell Kath. “In fact our performances had led Martin Johnson in the Independent to comment: ‘There are only three things wrong with this team. They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field’.”
Australia, on the other hand, had just returned from a drawn series in India – including a tied Test in Madras – with their reputations enhanced. Seen as the clear favourites for the first Test and the series, hopes were high that the new captain-coach partnership of Allan Border and Bobby Simpson would build on the encouraging signs shown in India and reclaim the urn. The Australian press were feeling confident.
“From what you hear in Australia, England have already lost the Ashes,” wrote Paul Weaver in the Mirror. “I’ve rarely seen a team rubbished so fiercely before an opening Test.” With Western Australia skipper Graeme Wood criticising England’s morale and preparation, and Border also questioning why only 11 of England’s 16 turned up for net practice just before the first Test, England were being written off as a bunch of no-hopers. A feeling of negativity had also seeped into the English press. “England will lose this series – very heavily – if they are defeated at Brisbane’s Gabba ground over the next week,” added Weaver. With odds of 7/2 to win the first Test, there were probably not many English takers.
During the relatively short tour, England had developed a perceived weakness against left-arm bowlers, with Dirk Tazelaar, Chris Matthews and Bruce Reid all enjoying success against them in the warm-up matches. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Australia named both Matthews and Reid in their starting XI, although the omission of Geoff Lawson meant there were only nine Test matches of experience between the two left-armers and Merv Hughes.
England had a fragile batting line-up, including the untried opening partnership of Chris Broad and Bill Athey, so it was no great surprise that Border elected to field when he won the toss. Broad went cheaply, a rare failure for him on his tour de force, but Athey and Gatting steadied the ship to leave Australia frustrated. Gatting departed for a gritty 61 but Athey made it through to the close of a day shortened by bad light and drizzle. Closing on 198/2 off 68 overs, and with Athey (76) and Allan Lamb (40) both set, England had taken the first-day honours.
What a difference a day makes. When Athey and Lamb departed immediately without adding to their overnight scores, the match was in the balance. With England 198/4, the partnership between David Gower and Botham was now crucial, especially as debutants Jack Richards and Phillip DeFreitas were waiting nervously in the wings. Had Matthews caught Gower at third slip when the palpably out-of-form English batsman was on 0, the house of cards may well have come tumbling down.
Instead, Gower’s escape proved to be a major turning point. A 118-run partnership between him and Botham moved England over 300 and allayed any fears of an all-too-typical collapse. Botham’s innings was carefully crafted, “comparable to his 118 at Old Trafford for power and control”, according to Wisden. “He simply took charge of the game,” reported John Woodcock in the Times. “With England in danger of squandering their hard-won advantage of the opening day and falling back into the slough of the previous week, it was as if Botham rose and said: ‘Leave this to me’.” For one final time in a Test match, Australia were about to suffer at the willow of Botham.
“The game was in the balance early in the first innings,” said Border. “And Beefy comes in and belts a big hundred in quick time and the whole momentum of the game changes.” At first Botham was sensible, playing straight to combat some tight bowling, but just before lunch we caught a glimpse of his attacking prowess. Launching Hughes for a six over point, Botham then clubbed a four over mid-on. Gower came down the wicket to check on his partner. Some suggested he was trying to calm Botham down, but Botham later revealed that Gower had told him that he was having too much fun to ask him to rein it in. Botham kept swinging.
Gower went for 51 after lunch, but Botham found another willing partner in Defreitas after Richards and John Emburey had been dismissed. This wasn’t a typical Botham knock, though, as he spent half an hour in the nervous 90s. However, a lofted drive straight over Hughes’ head brought up Botham’s 14th and final Test century for England – and his first in almost three years. And then carnage.
Botham had obviously taken a shine to Hughes’ bowling and switched to all-out attack, hooking his very next shot for six. “He’s going to cut loose now, that’s for sure,” said an excitable Tony Greig in commentary. When the next two deliveries disappeared for fours Greig added: ““He’s murdering Hughes. Twenty-two runs off the over. What a player he is.”
Botham passed Maurice Leyland’s record score of 126 at the Gabba for an Englishman, launching Greg Matthews for two huge sixes, as the pain continued for Border. Eventually dismissed for 138, his innings had set the tone for the series. The ground rose to salute him as he walked off, bat raised, knowing he had held sway over Australia when it really mattered. In 251 minutes he had faced 174 balls, hit 138 runs – including 13 fours and four sixes – and taken England to 456. Graham Dilley’s first five-wicket haul in Test cricket gave Gatting the luxury of enforcing the follow-on, and when the seven-wicket victory was wrapped up on the final day, Botham was quite rightly named as man of the match.
Botham’s knock not only pushed his team into a 1-0 lead in the series; it also turned the home media against their team. “From there on out, the Australian press turned their critical attention away from the worst ever side to visit their shores and started getting stuck into the Aussie players instead,” recalls Gatting. England, the no-hopers without a Test win in 11 matches, were now in the ascendancy. Border, with only three wins in 22 Tests as Australia captain, could feel the pressure mounting.
Botham did not trouble the scorers in the second Test and he missed the third with a side strain but he was back in the side for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. He was clearly unfit but somehow took 5/41, including the prize scalp of Border, in front of a packed crowd at the MCG. As was the case in Brisbane, he had risen to the big occasion. Botham’s contribution to the series victory showed just how important he was to the team and why it became so hard to replace him as the years progressed. His innings shaped the English winter and served as one final reminder that there really was only one Ian Botham.