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Holding out for a hero

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Picture the scene. An all powerful, psychotic leader ruling over a terrified cowed populace. The dictatorial leader is backed up by a near-military police force and a supine media slavishly adhering to the leaders every whim and fancy. Germany in the 30's perhaps? Chile in the 70’s? Iraq before 2003? Nope – Try - Britain in 1981.

For those of us living through the early years of the Thatcherite Junta, there was very little sporting success to cheer us up. The England football team were going through one of their perennial 'inept' phases - the one's that seem to last around twenty years or so. In rugby - the warm glow of the Bill Beaumont grand slam season in 1980 had quickly worn off.

However, English Cricket was on something of an up. We held the Ashes - courtesy of a monumental stuffing handed out by Mike Brearley's touring side in 1978/79. There was a new crop of batsmen - Gower, Gatting and Gooch, and a bowling attack spearheaded by Bob Willis. Above all though, there was Ian Botham. Already there was a legend of ‘Beefy’ starting to form around him - the power hitting and inspirational bowling. Then there were the extra-curricular activities… This was before the drink and drug stories became legion, but we'd already heard how he took on both the Chappell brothers in an Aussie bar, blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back, so - in a time of few heroes, we were prepared to grab at anything that moved.

The problem was, the previous summer he'd been made captain. Whilst he did pretty well and the team coped ok with the rampant Windies side of 1980 - you could tell he wasn't entirely comfortable in the role - rather like a shire horse having to perform at a gymkhana. He was ok, but you could tell he really wanted to cut loose, let himself off the leash.

So to the summer of 1981. The Australian tourists weren't the strongest side ever to visit these shores. They lacked batting depth with both Chappell's being absent, but the bowling was strong, based around Dennis Lillee, Geoff Lawson and Terry Alderman.

In the first test at Trent Bridge the cloud seemed so low you felt you could reach up and grab and handful. On a seaming pitch, neither side scored more than 200, Lillee and Alderman got 17 wickets between them – and the Aussies were one up. Botham had an average game, but questions were starting to be asked about his fitness to lead the side.

At Lords rain set in. England probably had the better of the subsequent draw, but the big story was Botham's pair and the tale of him walking through the hostile MCC members in the Lords pavilion. Botham quit, vowing revenge on ‘old farts’ everywhere, and Brearley was brought back.

So it was off to Leeds. Books have been written about this game, and for many years afterwards the memory would make Australians wake up in a cold sweat, until Border and Waugh made a point of exorcising the ghost in 1993. The batting heroics were on the Saturday evening. I don't recall anyone taking it too seriously - least of all Botham! To us it was little more than a gallant 'boy stood on the burning deck' act. Hugely entertaining, but merely postponing the inevitable Australian victory. Even on the Sunday, which was a rest day, the discussion at my local cricket club was based around coming back from two down, rather than the potential for any glorious victory.

Because of the school holidays, I was home on the Monday. I started watching at the start, but really only in a desultory sort of way. The England innings was quickly over, and the baggy Green needed just 130 to win. Sure, they lost early wickets - but even at 56-3 I was pretty sure they'd get home. Remember, it was only after this game that small fourth innings targets started to turn Australians to jelly

Then of course, all hell broke loose. Willis started bowling like a man possessed - terrifyingly quick and hostile. From comfort of my armchair, I watched in total disbelief! When it was all over, I phoned my Dad at work. No Internet in those days of course, so unless someone in the office had a radio, the only contact was to 'dial the score on one-five-four'. He refused to believe what had happened until the bloke at the next desk got a similar call - the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in the pub!

At that stage all the newspaper headlines were all about 'Botham and Willis' - but from the next test onwards Botham took centre stage and put himself firmly, and singly, in the spotlight.

Birmingham was another low scoring affair in the Trent Bridge mould, but this time England triumphed. Again, I watched from home - refusing to believe that the Australians could fail to chase a small target twice. The memories? Bright sunshine, Botham irresistible taking 5 wickets for one run and a raucous crowd that reminded me of some of the punk gigs I was attending around that time.

From that moment - Botham belonged to the tabloids, and from that moment he became our comfort blanket. However deep in the mire England were, we knew that because we had Beefy, there would always be a way out - always hope whilst he was at the crease or warming up to bowl. .

His extraordinary ton at Old Trafford, therefore, came as no surprise. To be honest. if a paper had carried shots of him walking down the Manchester Ship Canal whilst simultaneously turning base metal into gold, we wouldn't have been surprised.

The final test was a bit of an anti climax. Thousands of us though, queued up outside from six o'clock each morning to get in and pay homage to the new Messiah. When he was out cheaply in the first innings, there was silence followed by a disappointed sigh - even from the smattering of Aussies round the Oval that day.

We said there'd never be another summer like it.......



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