After losing to India and New Zealand during the summer of 1986, hopes were not high for England's Ashes tour to Australia. But inspired by the brilliance of Ian Botham, an unexpected win at the Gabba laid the foundations for a wonderful winter.
Even by his standards, Ian Botham had crammed a lot into the twelve months before the start of 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 he felt betrayed at the treatment of his close friends Viv Richards and Joel Garner, who had been sacked by the county.
On the field, Botham showed the nation what they had been missing when he returned from his ban. Dismissing New Zealand's Bruce Edgar with the first ball of his comeback, Botham then moved ahead of 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 enquire about the identity of Beefy's script writer.
Botham's best years may have been behind him, but England skipper Mike Gatting knew how important the great all-rounder would be in Australia. "He always seemed to me to want to prove something in Australia," Mike Gatting wrote in Leading from the Front. "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 had the press vultures circling.
"We had not covered ourselves with glory at the start of the tour," Botham states in 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 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 were about to build on the encouraging signs shown in India, and reclaim the Ashes lost in 1985. Although many saw the series as a Wooden Spoon decider in Test cricket, the Australian press were still quick to tear into the tourists.
"From what you hear in Australia, England have already lost the Ashes," Paul Weaver wrote 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 the fact that only 11 of England's 16 turned up for net practice just before the first Test, England were fast being written off as a bunch of no-hopers.
As Johnson's stinging assessment highlighted, a feeling of negativity had seeped into the English press too. "England may well need to fortify themselves with the belief that cricket can be a funny old game, and that the age of the miracle is not yet over," Peter West wrote in his Daily Telegraph preview. "I believe England will lose this series - very heavily - if they are defeated at Brisbane's Gabba ground over the next week," Weaver added. 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; Dirk Tazelaar, Chris Matthews, and Bruce Reid all enjoying success in the warm-up matches. Therefore, it wasn't a complete surprise when Australia named both Matthews and Reid in their starting XI, although the omission of Geoff Lawson meant that there was only nine Test matches experience between the two left-armers and Merv Hughes.
With an untried opening partnership in Chris Broad and Bill Athey, and a fragile England batting line-up, not many were surprised when Border won the toss and elected to field. 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 would depart for a gritty 61, yet 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 Ian Botham would be crucial, especially as debutants Jack Richards and Phillip Defreitas waited nervously in the wings. Had Chris Matthews caught Gower at third slip when the palpably out of form English batsman was on 0, then the house of cards may well have come tumbling down.
Gower's escape would prove to be a major turning point. A 118-run partnership between the pair moved England over the 300 mark, and allayed any fears of the all too typical collapse. Botham's innings would be carefully crafted, "comparable to his 118 at Old Trafford for power and control", according to Wisden. With the match in the balance, England's match winner delivered once more.
"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'." John Woodcock's words in the Times were, as ever, spot-on. "He simply took charge of the game," Woodcock added. For one final time in a Test match, Australia were about to suffer at the willow of Ian Botham.
"The game was probably in the balance early in the first innings," Border explains on Cricket's Greatest. "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. Yet 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 suggesting with lunch approaching, that he was trying to calm Botham down. According to Botham's account in Don't Tell Kath, Gower actually informed him that he was having too much fun to ask him to rein it in. Either way, Botham proceeded to smash for another four through cover, as the alarm bells chimed for Australia.
Gower went for 51 after lunch, but Botham found a 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 last Test century for England, and his first in almost three years. And then carnage.
Beefy had obviously taken a shine to Hughes' bowling and switched to all-out attack. Hooking his very next delivery for six, Tony Greig described how Botham was "going to cut loose now, that's for sure," and he was not wrong. "He's murdering Hughes," an excitable Greig announced, as the next two deliveries disappeared for fours. When the final ball went for another four, Greig summed it up neatly: "22 runs off the over, and what a player he is."
Botham would pass 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, the ground rose to salute an innings that would set the tone for the series. Walking off, raising his bat, my hero, tinted-blond mullet and all, had continued his psychological hold over Australia when it really mattered.
Containing 13 fours and 4 sixes, the innings spanning 174 balls and 251 minutes enabled England to reach 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.
"There is unlikely to be a better piece of batting on the tour than Botham's 138 on Saturday," Woodcock concluded. Botham's knock had not only pushed his team into a 1-0 lead in the series; it turned the Australian press against their own team.
"And 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," Gatting reveals. England, the no-hopers without a Test win in eleven matches, were now in the ascendancy. Border, with only three wins in 22 Tests as Australia's captain, could feel the pressure mounting.
The next time Botham went to the crease in a Test match was at Perth. Unfortunately, he didn't trouble the scorers. England were 333/4, though, and the challenge simply wasn't there. Missing the next Test at Adelaide due to a side strain, Beefy returned for the Boxing Day Test. Clearly unfit, the packed crowd at the MCG would witness Botham somehow take 5/41, including the prize scalp of Border. As was the case in Brisbane, the man rose for the big occasion to help England retain the Ashes.
Botham's contribution to the series win in Brisbane and Melbourne highlighted his importance to the team, and why it became so hard to replace the legend as the years progressed. "Brisbane, 1986, will be remembered as one of the days when the mood took him to play with the utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause," Tony Lewis stated in the Telegraph. An innings that shaped the English winter, and one final reminder that there really was only one Ian Botham.