Sporting Upsets: Botham and Willis lead cricket’s Dunkirk

‘Miraculous’ and unlikely victory over old foe Australia ‘was as unbelievable as Dunkirk’

In the course of his career as a caddy Ricci Roberts has worked with big names, among them Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell and Nick Price. But his on-off 20-plus-year partnership with Ernie Els proved the most productive, Els winning all four of his majors with his fellow South African at his side.

In interviews over the years, though, Roberts has talked about their, at times, turbulent relationship, about how often the pair fell out and parted company. "We make Liz Taylor and Richard Burton look like novices in terms of how many break-ups we've had," he said. "I've had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. "

Challenging and all as those times must have been, it’s hard to imagine Roberts having a more testing task in the course of his sports-related life than the one presented to him on July 21st, 1981. That was the day he had to knock on the door of a shellshocked Australian cricket side’s changing room and ask if he could have their champagne.

"It was suggested to him, in suitably undiplomatic Australian language, that he might like to consider going away," as Ian Botham recalled.


Back then Roberts was a young man with ambitions to make it as a professional golfer himself, but in the meantime he was working as the dressing room attendant at Headingley. And it so happened that he was on duty the day England rose from the, well, Ashes to beat the Australians in one of sport's more astonishing comebacks.

Famously, the bookies offered odds of 500/1 on an England victory after they were forced to follow on by Australia, trailing them by 227 runs after their first innings, only one Test side ever having won from that position – and that was back in 1894. And so sure were England themselves that the Test wouldn’t even make it to the fifth day, several of their players, including Botham, checked out of their hotels on the Monday morning.

Despite the near certainty of an Australian win, two of their players, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, were so gobsmacked by the odds offered in a "two-horse race", they bet £15 between them on England winning. Nowadays, that would most likely land them a hefty ban, but while they faced plenty of criticism once word of the bet got out, The Sun reporting that they had won £7,500 between them, there were no sanctions.

In his book 500-1: The Miracle of Headingley '81, Rob Steen broached the thorny subject of whether or not the bet might have influenced Lillee and Marsh's performances in the game. But he, and most of those to whom he spoke, doubted it. One who wondered, though, was the late Graham Dilley whose 56 runs in England's second innings played a major part in the game's extraordinary turnaround.

“I can remember being typically English in not totally believing we’d won entirely through our own efforts,” he said. “The bet just put an element of doubt in my mind, even though I knew nothing dodgy had happened.”

Anything dodgy happening would have been unthinkable. As cricket writer Ted Corbett told Steen, "so many people's perceptions of what's exciting, captivating and unpredictable about cricket stem from Headingley '81. That's why Lillee and Marsh got off lightly. It would be like finding that the Germans at Dunkirk didn't have any bullets. It would destroy the legend."

As for Lillee, his denial of any wrongdoing was typically emphatic: “I’d flatten anyone who ever suggested I threw a game.”

In the end it was Australia who were flattened, largely by the efforts of Botham and Bob Willis. At one point in England's second innings, when they collapsed to 135 for 7, still 92 runs away from even making Australia bat again, they were just three wickets away from an innings defeat.

Enter Ian Botham

He'd lost the captaincy of England after the previous Test, bringing to an end a hapless 12-match reign comprising eight defeats, four draws and not a single victory. He was out for a pair in that second Test, giving him an average of just 13 with the bat during his captaincy, and his bowling wasn't in great shape either. There were plenty of voices calling for him to be dropped from the side for the third test, among them former captain Ray Illingworth who described Botham as "overrated, overweight and overpaid".

Returning captain Mike Brearley kept the faith, though. His reward wasn't just great, it was spectacular.

While, as a team, England were having an abysmal Test, Botham, freed from the burden of the captaincy and no doubt eager to make Illingworth choke on his words, was rediscovering his form with both bat and ball, scoring 50 in the first innings and taking six wickets.

And then, playing with all the abandon of a fella who thought the Test was lost so he might as well give it a lash, he scored 149 off 148 balls, including a monster six off Terry Alderman. "Don't bother looking for that, let alone chasing it," said Richie Benaud. "That's gone straight into the confectionary stall and out again."

It was an innings that you wouldn’t find in any cricketing text book, and it wasn’t without its good fortune either. Botham taking the old maxim, “if you’re going to flash, flash hard” to a whole new level. Brearley later called it “blacksmith cricket”. “And what better cricketing blacksmith,” he asked, “was there than Botham?”

That knock, which is usually proceeded by the word “swashbuckling”, combined with Dilley’s 56 and Chris Old’s 29, left Australia a target of 130 to win the match. Easily achievable, of course, but at least England had saved faced and avoided the humiliation of an innings defeat.

Enter Bob Willis

He wasn’t even in the original team for the Test, the selectors doubting his fitness, and at 32, having struggled with knee and back injuries, he reckoned his international career was coming to an end. When he failed to take a single wicket in Australia’s first innings, he was beginning to think it would end there and then in Headingley. Which would, at least, have given him more time to devote to his greatest passion, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. (So devoted, in fact, he made Dylan his third name by deed poll when he was a teenager).

Brearley, more a Beethoven man, had his doubts about Willis too, choosing Botham and Dilley as his opening bowlers for Australia’s second innings. But Dilley was hit for 11 off his first two overs, so Willis was given the ball. And, like a man possessed, he produced what was, by common consent, one of the finest displays of fast bowling in the history of the sport.

Cruising towards victory at 56-1, with wickets and time on their side, Australia were then blown away by Willis, all 6ft 6in of him steaming in from the Kirkstall Lane End like a freight train. Or, as Matthew Engel put it in Willis's obituary after his death last December, "like an antique biplane trying to take off in a gale".

Trevor Chappell out for eight, captain Kim Hughes out for a duck (to a brilliant Botham catch in the slips), Graham Yallop out for a duck, John Dyson out for 34, Rod Marsh out for four and Geoff Lawson out for one. Now it was 75-8. And the way Willis was bowling, the bookies might have been tempted to make England 1-500 for the win.

But Lillee and Ray Bright then put on 35 runs in just four overs, and it looked like there would be no miracle after all. Until Mike Gatting caught Lillee off Willis, who then sent Bright's middle stump in to the middle of next week to finish with figures of eight for forty-three. Miracle complete. England had won by 18 runs.

That’s when Ricci Roberts’ services were required. So sure were the Australians that they had the Test won, and so certain had England been that they would lose, the only bubbly to be found was in the bath in the Australians’ dressing room. Roberts, then, knocked on their door to ask if the English lads could have the contents of the bath. If it was Lillee who answered, Roberts had displayed courage beyond the call of duty.

There was no stopping England after that, Botham especially, coming back from losing the opening Test to take the series 3-1. Headingley had sparked the revival.

"It was as unbelievable as Dunkirk," former British prime minister John Major once said of the "miraculous" comeback. And it was Botham and Willis who came with the bullets.