England on the face of it were in a slightly better place than the tourists going into the match. The return of the 1982 South African rebels (Gooch, Emburey and Willey), greatly strengthened the side, and Ian Botham's availability after his self-imposed break from the winter tour of India, gave much needed balance back to the team. After brilliantly coming back from one-nil down to win 2-1 in India, hopes were high that the Ashes would be regained, after the 1982-83 series loss down under. One cloud however hung over the England team: the form of their skipper David Gower.
Gower could be forgiven for having an atrocious series against the West Indies in 1984, Allan Lamb aside, not one Englishman averaged over 35 with the bat. Even so, his average of 19 was alarming to put it mildly, and when he followed this with 167 runs at 27.83 in the Indian series, the vultures began to sense it would be feeding time soon. They were booking in for bed and breakfast when Gower scored 3 and 0 in the first two Texaco Trophy games against the Australians, but Gower's tricky over the shoulder catch of David Boon in the final match of the series seemed to lift the shackles (Gower admitted as much on the excellent 'The Ashes Regained' video). Gower proceeded to score 102 in England's consolation victory, ticking off a much needed box prior to the Ashes series. Even so, the England selectors, led by Peter May, only appointed Gower for the first two tests of the summer. Now there's confidence and stability for you.
England's rebel players' ban was lifted just as Australia were right in the middle of their very own South African made nightmare. The 1985-87 rebel tours deprived the Australians of many key players, and their bowling was particularly impacted: Terry Alderman, Rodney Hogg and Carl Rackemann were not available for selection, meaning that they would be heavily reliant on Geoff Lawson, the ageing Jeff Thomson, and the raw 20-year-old paceman Craig McDermott. When Lawson contracted a throat infection in the week leading up to the first test, the situation was looking bleak for the tourists, although thankfully he would eventually declare himself fit for the match. The batting, led by the ever reliable and determined captain Allan Border, seemed to be Australia's stronger suit, although it was perhaps telling that, Wessels excepted, none of the rest of the top six that made the final XI for Leeds had what you would call a decent batting average: Wood 32.74, Hilditch 30.33, Ritchie 28.06, and Boon 26.40 (admittedly in only three tests).
Another indicator that 1985 was a completely alien world to the present, is the fact that 19 of the players that would feature in the test were still involved in games just two days before the first day of the test. No central contracts back then, as nine of England's team were on county championship duty, with Gower and Willey taking on the touring Australians (Gower would score 135 to continue his return to form). Perhaps it wasn't quite so different though. When England omitted Phil Edmonds from the squad in favour of Leicestershire's Peter Willey, Peter Laker writing in the Daily Mirror noted that this was "Because chief selector Peter May regards the combative Willey, 35, as important batting insurance in the event of failure by England's front six batsmen." Similar in some ways to the Giles/Panesar and Bresnan/Finn debates of recent times.
Neil Foster was the unlucky man to miss out from England's final twelve, especially seeing as his two matches in India had yielded 14 wickets at 20.42. Australia handed a debut to all-rounder Simon O'Donnell, with Jeff Thomson playing his first test match for over two years. Border, Wood and Lawson were the only survivors from the miracle of Headingley in 1981, and were no doubt delighted to be reminded of this nightmare every time there was a rain break during the series (there were plenty).
England XI: Gooch, Robinson, Gower*, Gatting, Lamb, Botham, Willey, Downton†, Emburey, Allott, Cowans
Australia XI: Wood, Hilditch, Wessels, Border*, Boon, Ritchie, Phillips†, McDermott, O'Donnell, Lawson, Thomson
Border won the toss and elected to bat, obviously hoping for a repeat of 1981 in terms of the first innings at least. After losing Graeme Wood with the score on 23, Australia set about building a big score, through Hilditch and Wessels. Aided by some average bowling by England, the Australians reached 155 until Botham brilliantly caught Wessels at slip off of Emburey. Hilditch, who was in poor form coming into the test match (250 runs runs in 9 tour innings), punished anything loose, and was seeing the ball well enough to hook Botham and Cowans for sixes (something he would struggle to do for the rest of the series). He reached his second test century from 140 balls, and as Australia progressed to 201/2, Border's decision to bat first was looking wiser by the over. But part-time bowler Gooch quickly accounted for Hilditch and Boon, and Cowans struck to dislodge the Australian skipper, all of a sudden 229/5 was not looking so healthy. A strong counter attacking partnership of 55 from 12 overs by Ritchie and Phillips restored parity, although Phillips would depart just before the close of play to leave the Australians on 284/6.
The press were fairly scathing in their assessment of the day's play: "Australians take toll of slack bowling", reported the Daily Telegraph; "Hilditch carts the rubbish!", lambasted the Daily Express. Admittedly England did serve up a lot of "help yourself" deliveries, with 176 of the 284 Australian runs coming in boundaries, but taking six wickets when the opposition has won the toss surely didn't deserve such criticism? After all, the adage about seeing both teams bat on a wicket before making a judgement, surely still applied in the 80s?
Day two, did bring relative success for England. After some early resistance from Phillips and McDermott, the tail was wrapped up quickly, Australia losing their last four wickets for only five runs, for a final total of 331. At 201/2 and 326/6 England were probably the happier side. However, Gooch soon fell lbw to
Gatting reached his half century on the Saturday, before McDermott claimed his third wicket of the innings, leaving England interestingly poised on 186/3. Allan Lamb joined the ubiquitous Robinson, the pair adding 78, until Simon O'Donnell claimed his first test wicket by bowling Lamb for 38. This gave the capacity 18,000 Saturday crowd the sight that they all wanted - Ian Terrence Botham, blond mullet and all, striding towards the crease. And he didn't disappoint. His 60 from 51 balls would be seen as aggressive nowadays, so you can imagine how thrilling a knock it was in sleepy old 1985. By the time Jeff Thomson dismissed Beefy, England had passed the Australian total, and there was more power to add.
Through all of this, Robinson marched on to an inevitable century, anchoring the innings like a seasoned test opener. He and Peter Willey added 73 for the sixth wicket, before Robinson was finally removed by Lawson for a career defining 175. And I'm pleased to say that a 9-year-old 1980s Sports Blogger had the pleasure to watch this innings, my first exposure to test cricket. From this day on, I would spend endless summers and winters totally obsessed and enraptured by the sport, and all this is down to one Tim Robinson. So if it wasn't for Tim, my summers would have been an endless drag of waiting for the football season to begin, I would not have experienced the elation of Edgbaston 2005, the Ashes 2005, or the recent performances of the England cricket team. Conversely, I would have avoided the pain of the Ashes 1989-2002/3, 2006/7, the majority of the 90s, 46 all out in Trinidad, and others, but you have to live through the poor times to appreciate the rich.
My first cricketing hero
England ended day three in a commanding position on 484/9, the lower order adding useful runs after Robinson's dismissal. A 49-run partnership between the Middlesex duo of Downton (54) and Cowans (22 not out), further increased England's advantage and Australia's frustrations after the rest day on the Sunday (how quaint). A 202-run first innings lead provided England with a match winning position that they surely couldn't relinquish, only the weather or a Headingley 81 style turnaround would deny them now. Luckily the weather remained reasonably fair (apart from a couple of bad light stoppages), but England would provide their supporters with a few heart palpitations along the way to victory.
Again Wood fell cheaply, allowing Hilditch and Wessels to repeat their first innings recovery act. But soon 144/1 became 160/5, as John Emburey ripped out the heart of the Australian innings, removing Hilditch, Wessels and Ritchie in quick succession, Botham seeing off Border during the spin induced collapse at the other end. Australia limped to 190/5 at the end of play, still 12 runs in arrears, and needing some resistance on the Tuesday to see them depart from Headingley on level terms.
Following the English cricket team has never been an easy task, and the range of emotions us supporters often go through were very much evident on the final day of the first Ashes test of 1985. We should have known that, even though we quickly reduced Australia to 192/6, things are rarely straight forward when England are involved. Wicket keeper Phillips, and debutant O'Donnell, put on a fine 80-run partnership for the seventh wicket, Phillips particularly brutal on Paul Allott's bowling, hitting three successive fours in one over. After O'Donnell was dismissed, Phillips and Lawson nudged Australia's lead to over three figures, before Phillips fell an agonising nine runs short of a well deserved century. Emburey took the final two wickets, ending up with figures of 5/82, meaning England were left with a tricky target of 123 in 52 overs. In 1981, the Australian target had been 130, and for a while it looked as if England were doing their best to emulate the final innings chaos of that year.
Of course, it all began so serenely, with Gooch and Robinson compiling a 44-run partnership at almost a run a minute. Even at tea, with England on 62/2, there was no panic. But then Gooch and Gatting soon departed, leaving England on a nervous 83/4. Lamb and Botham calmed English anxiety though, moving the score along to 110, before O'Donnell was rewarded for some improved bowling, with the wicket of Botham. England finally made it across the line, securing a five-wicket victory, to go one up in the series. However, the winning hit was controversial: Allan Lamb's top edge may well have been snapped up by Lawson, running back towards the boundary, but this testing chance was hardly made any easier, when several members of the crowd invaded the pitch in a premature moment of celebration. "'Mad dogs' spoil England's glory" trumpeted the Daily Express headline the following day, as Pat Gibson reasoned that "Cricket authorities must act immediately to stop the kind of pitch invasion that marred the end of the first Cornhill Test at Headingley." Naturally, this problem was then rapidly acted upon, only taking until 2001 to be solved.
Incredibly, the Daily Mirror's back page headline on the Wednesday read "GOWER FACING THE AXE". Even in the crazy English cricketing world of the 1980s, the situation David Gower found himself in was quite frankly staggering. The Daily Telegraph also picked up on this, noting in a preview of the second test at Lord's that Gower was in an unenviable position "...knowing that even a second successive victory might not be enough to secure his hold on the captaincy." Quite absurd. Fortunately for Gower, his subsequent 86 at Lord's silenced his doubting bosses; unfortunately the Australians won to level the series. However, that, and Gower's spectacular return of 732 runs in the series, is a tale for another day. For now, I was hooked on this new sport, and I'm so glad that on Saturday June 15, 1985, I found myself in the right place, at the right time, to witness Tim Robinson's 175, and start me off on this fabulous love affair with a quite brilliant game. Though I'm not quite so sure that my wife would share the same opinion as me.