Friday May 30, 1980: Ian Botham can do no wrong. Before leading England to a three-wicket victory against the West Indies in the Prudential Trophy, Botham was appointed as Test captain for the first two matches of the West Indian summer. His promotion from the ranks was very much based on the school principle of naming your best player as captain - at the time Botham averaged 40.48 with the bat and 18.52 with the ball in his 25 Test match career - and the hope was that Captain Beefy could drag his team with him. Oh dear.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a year can almost be a career for a sportsman/woman. The asterisk always placed next to Botham's captaincy record understandably has 'played nine matches against the West Indies' scrawled next to it, but even allowing for the might of the Caribbean machine, Beefy's tenure had not gone well, although come the mid-eighties, a 1-0 and 2-0 defeat against Clive Lloyd's men would have been cause for street parties. Crucially though, Botham's form had deserted him, his batting average just 14.23 as captain, whilst his bowling figure was 34.79, and with the arrival of the Australian's for an Ashes series in England, the pressure on England's great all-rounder was suffocating.
Australia were not without their own problems however. Greg Chappell's decision to miss the England tour due to business and family reasons, left a big hole in the team in terms of both a captain and a batsman. The role of captain was handed to Kim Hughes, though as the series would develop, it soon became clear that the golden boy of Australian cricket did not have the full backing of the dominant forces of the dressing room in Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. Marsh was aggrieved at missing out on the captaincy, with Lillee also put out on behalf of his good mate, and stories of became rife of Australia's star paceman trying to knock the head off of his skipper in the nets.
The turbulence surrounding both Ashes captains was matched by a typically wet start to the British summer. Of the twelve scheduled days of first-class cricket for Australia before the one-day series, six were rained off and only three were uninterrupted, allowing the tourists roughly 30 hours of time in the middle against Hampshire, Somerset, Glamorgan and Gloucestershire (quite a lot of time in comparison to current tour schedules).
To make matters worse, Lillee then fell ill, diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, reportedly losing a stone in weight, and making his involvement in the fast-approaching Prudential Trophy doubtful. Lillee was eventually passed fit, although even with him in the side, most experts were predicting a comfortable win for England in the three-match series, this opinion mainly based upon the fact that England had won their last seven ODIs against the old enemy.
The run extended to eight in a row, as England comfortably won by six wickets at Lord's. For Australia, there was the bonus of a typically determined 73 not out from Allan Border, and the encouragement of a return to action for Lillee, his figures of 11-3-23-2 showing that even after his spell out, he was still the pick of the visitors' bowlers. An opening stand of 86 between Boycott and Gooch set the platform in England's chase of 211, the Yorkshireman seeing the job through and gaining the man of the match award for his unbeaten 75. Botham also had the bonus of hitting the winning four, but if he thought this was the start of something good, then he was sorely mistaken.
England really should have sealed the series at Edgbaston. Chasing 250 from 55 overs, the home team were cruising at 224/5 until Botham's dismissal brought about a 2013 ICC Champions Trophy final type collapse which saw Australia sneak home by just two runs. At Headingley, after Graeme Wood's fine 108 had anchored Australia's 236/8, England folded pathetically to 165, Rodney Hogg taking 4/29, Terry Alderman 2/19, and even Trevor Chappell claiming 3/31 (presumably with no underarm deliveries). The 71-run defeat gave Australia the Prudential Trophy, and heaped an extra spoonful of burden on to the sagging shoulders of England's troubled leader.
The concept that Beefy was constantly on trial was not helped when immediately after the defeat, Alec Bedser, the Chairman of Selectors, announced that Botham was appointed as England captain for the first Test match only. "We have to decide whether the captaincy affects Botham's play," stated Bedser, with Botham himself trying his best to remain positive over the affair: "It's better than not being appointed at all". Both England and Botham would need a good performance at Trent Bridge though to keep the doubters at bay. The Daily Mirror's 'Both on a tightrope' headline summed up the perilous position in which Botham found himself.
As well as the Botham issue, England had other problems on their plate. England's last eight Test innings had seen the number three position produce scores of 10, 5, 2, 0, 2, 1, 3, and 1 as Brian Rose, Mike Gatting, and Bill Athey struggled unsurprisingly in the West Indies. This led to a recall for Kent's Bob Woolmer, a year after he had been dropped from the side due to the perceived wisdom that he was scoring too slowly, yet his previous four Test scores of 46, 29, 15 and an unbeaten 19 seemed positively Bradmanesque in relation to what followed.
The bowling department was also a cause for concern. Doubts remained over whether Bob Willis' body could stand up to the rigours of a five-day Test, after he had returned from the West Indies to have a knee operation, Graham Dilley was not enjoying his greatest first-class season so far, and of course Botham's lack of form wasn't helping matters. With Trent Bridge expected to be a seamers' paradise, the situation seemed far from ideal.
Australia on the other hand seemed to have a couple of bowlers coming nicely into form. Terry Alderman finished with match figures of 6/56 in a drawn match with Derbyshire, whilst Lillee continued his rehabilitation, taking 6/67 against Middlesex. England had been warned.
Gooch, Boycott, Woolmer, Gower, Gatting, Willey, Botham*, Downton†, Dilley, Willis, Hendrick
Wood, Dyson, Yallop, Hughes*, Chappell, Border, Marsh†, Lawson, Lillee, Hogg, Alderman
The Times' John Woodcock, writing on the morning of the first Test, was as usual very perceptive in his thoughts: "We could be in for a close series, starting with a fairly desperate affair in Nottingham". The pitch certainly raised a few eyebrows, looking even more sporting than the wicket that had seen the West Indies scrape home by two wickets in a relatively low-scoring affair in Botham's first match as captain. It was definitely a case of win the toss and bowl, and with both teams leaving out their spinners (John Emburey and Ray Bright), that is exactly what Hughes did.
Not that the television viewer would have seen much of the preamble; the BBC's coverage started at 10.55am, just five minutes before the start of play. And then just 25 minutes in, the action switched to BBC2, as it was deemed necessary to screen the kids' classic You and Me on BBC1. Sky Sports Ashes it wasn't.
Immediately it became apparent that batting in overcast conditions was going to provide a thorough examination of English batting techniques. Indeed the ball was swinging so much that one Lillee delivery was given as a wide due to the movement. Soon England were 13/2, Gooch and Woolmer dismissed, the dismal run of the number three position continuing with a duck. Boycott (27) and Gower (26) began a slight recovery, their scores extremely respectable given the quality of the bowling and the toughness of the pitch and cloud cover. Alderman accounted for Boycott though, and when Lillee took his third wicket in removing Gower, England's score of 67/4 was looking shaky.
Lillee and Alderman exerted pressure throughout, the latter bowling a staggering 24 overs on the bounce in his debut match, but any tiredness he must have felt would have evaporated once he took Willey's wicket, and then uprooted Botham's middle stump after the England skipper had unwisely attempted to whip a delivery through midwicket. When Downton became Alderman's next victim, England were 116/7 and in heaps of trouble.
Through this all, Gatting had been batting with a calm assurance, and when he finally found some support in Dilley, England's fortunes began to change. Their eighth wicket partnership of 43 in 50 minutes at least provided some cheer, and although Hogg trapped Gatting lbw for a classy 52 and polished off the tail, some late hitting from Dilley edged England up to 185, a total which given the circumstances actually looked quite competitive.
Even more so when Australia were reduced to 33/4 by the close of play. Dilley took Woods' wicket with the second ball of the innings, Willis saw off Dyson and Hughes (his 200th Test wicket), whilst Hendrick bowled Yallop, to begin to make England's total look mammoth. One black shadow hanging over England though remained the Botham factor, as the England captain, one of the best slip catchers in the world, put down Dyson before stumps, Richie Benaud accurately commenting that nothing would go right for Botham currently. It was not costly at the time, but given the events of the next few days, it proved to be the first of many blemishes in the field for both Botham and England.
Although day two was shortened to a little under four hours due to drizzle, the match was still progressing at a rapid speed. On a day of missed chances for the home team, Australia ended on 166/9, a deficit of just 19 runs, Allan Border's fine 57 not out the mainstay of the innings. The Test was in the balance, but if England had held their chances then things could have been so different.
Woodcock described England's efforts as "catching that would have put a girls' school to shame", with 'Butterfingers Botham' (the Daily Express' words, not mine), the main culprit. First to be given a life was the debutant Chappell, dropped by Botham off Willis. But the two that did the most harm to England were both offered from the bat of Border; the first was a staggering blooper by wicketkeeper Downton, who spilled the catch after appearing to throw it up too early in his celebrations, and Botham once again culpable when Border was only on 17.
And the hits just kept on coming (some of which can be viewed in this ITN video). Botham brought himself into the attack, and the irony would not have been lost on him when his replacement in the slips (Dilley) dropped Lillee. To round off the day appropriately, Botham was deprived of another wicket, when Gooch dropped Alderman, although the England captain was hardly in a strong enough position to complain.
"Had it not been a Test match against Australia, with every run important, it might have been amusing," stated Woodcock, and after a frustrating day in which England had let Australia back in the game from 89/6 and 110/7, Border's assessment of the match position was the most telling: "If they had held their catches, we would have been 80 or 90 behind on the first innings. But the fielding let them down and it should be a great game now".
England did claim a lead early on the Saturday morning - Botham finally taking a catch, this time off his own bowling to remove Border for a fine 63 - yet a six-run advantage was hardly what their bowlers had deserved. And in what was now basically a two-innings match, Lillee and Alderman again began to make the ball talk, quickly reducing England to 13/3, the pair aided by some fine fielding, Marsh's 100th English dismissal a neat catch that saw Woolmer complete a pair.
Gatting, Gower, Willey and Botham attempted to repair the damage, but on a wicket that kept offering support for the seamers, under grey conditions in Nottingham, no batsman ever felt truly comfortable. Gatting was undone by a delivery from Alderman that kept low, Willey trapped in front by Lillee, and Gower, after playing sublimely for his 28, produced one of his many moments of frustration when he flashed a shot low into the gully region to give substitute fielder Martin Kent the chance to show England how it should be done. Encouragingly, Botham had at least moved to 21 before play was brought to a premature conclusion at 2.35pm due to bad light, though England's score of 94/6 (a lead of 100) was looking a little light.
On an historic day for English Test cricket - the very first to be played on a Sunday in England - supporters arrived at the ground for the midday start, hopeful that Botham and co could somehow scrape the home team up to a competitive total. But as soon as Downton, and more importantly Botham, were dismissed by Alderman and Lillee respectively, any such aspirations faded, England's final total of 125 setting the Australians 132 for victory. For Australia the heroes were undoubtedly Alderman and Lillee, the former taking 5/62 in the second innings for debut match figures of 9/130, with Lillee's 5/46, and 8/80 overall, enough to earn him the man of the match award.
Although the target was a little lower than England would have hoped for, chasing 132 at Trent Bridge was never going to be easy, especially seeing as Australia had failed to chase down 143 in their last Test in Melbourne against India, their sad total of 83 highlighting a lack of nerve in small run chases that would haunt the tourists in the later part of the summer.
England's luck seemed to have vanished into thin air though, when the sun magically popped out and made batting less treacherous, but they did not help themselves again when Woolmer dropped Dyson on 16, the reprieved batsman going on to make a vital 38. Wickets were taken at regular intervals, and at 40/2 there was a small window of opportunity, especially when England went up confidently for a catch behind when Hughes had not scored. However, umpire Bill Alley did not agree, Hughes and Dyson taking advantage in a reassuring partnership of 37.
Dilley would account for both in a short space of time to reduce Australia to 80/4, though Chappell and Border would alleviate any Australian anxiety, the duo putting on 42 runs and edging Australia just ten runs short of victory. Again Dilley would quickly strike twice (Border and Marsh), but Chappell, aided by Lawson, saw Australia home, their four-wicket victory putting them 1-0 up in the series, and taking Botham's captaincy record to P11 W0 D7 L4.
Naturally, the main talking point from an English perspective again centred on Botham. Discussions had been ongoing during the latter stages of the Test surrounding his leadership, until it was revealed late on the Sunday that Botham would be in charge for the Lord's Test, although again he was not given any further backing than the next game only. Botham was making the right noises in public - "It doesn't worry me being named one Test at a time" - but the situation was far from ideal, and was unlikely to improve Botham's ailing form with that amount of tension hanging over him.
For now it was Hughes who was the happier skipper, Australia's win and the disarray in the England ranks seemingly putting the visitors in a very strong position for the rest of the six-match series. Admittedly Hughes knew Australia had benefitted from England's generosity, but for the moment he revelled in the moment: "The pressure is on the Poms now". He wasn't wrong.
Luck though, a vital part of any sport despite what people might say, had apparently slipped through Botham's fingers as indeed many of the catches had done in Australia's first innings. And things were about to get a whole lot worse. Lord's provided very little comfort for Beefy, and it looked as if it was the beginning of the end. Indeed it was, but as it turned out, it was not just the beginning of the end for Botham captaincy, but also Hughes' Ashes dreams too.