Ashes greatest moments: Kim Hughes reflects on the 1981 Miracle at Headingley

It was a moment that would live with the Australian Test team for the rest of their lives.

“We were all sitting in the rooms thinking, ‘How did that happen?’,” Kim Hughes told ABC Sport.

It was Headingley, 1981, and Hughes had gone from almost certainly leading Australia to a 2-0 advantage to losing the unlosable third Test.

“I’ve had a few nightmares, I need some counselling,” said Hughes with a laugh.

“It was just one of those freakish games.”

When regular skipper Greg Chappell opted out of the tour, his deputy Hughes was appointed caretaker captain.

The stylish batter with the golden curls had been in charge of the Test team on seven occasions in 1979 when Chappell, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and other mainstays were unavailable due to their participation in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.

With the exception of Chappell, all the big names were available for the 1981 Ashes, but Hughes said he did not have a say in the selection of the squad.

“In those days the captain didn’t have a casting vote but they usually inquired of your opinion, which is fair enough because you’re the captain of the ship and if the ship goes down you want to know that you’ve had an input into who’s going down with you,” Hughes said.

“I thought (off-spinner) Bruce Yardley and (batter) Bruce Laird should’ve been picked.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if we had Laird and Yardley in that squad, we would’ve won at Headingley and we would’ve come home [with a series win] but we didn’t and life goes on.”

Australia won the first Test and the second finished in a draw.

Brearley takes over from Beefy

In the lead-up to the third Test, England’s charismatic all-rounder Ian Botham pre-empted the selectors’ decision by stepping down as captain, having made a pair of ducks in the second Test.

Botham had gone 20 innings without a half-century and had not taken a five-wicket haul with the ball in his previous 12 Tests.

Two English male cricketers smile on a balcony at Headingley in 1981.
Mike Brearley, right, replaced Ian Botham as England captain for the Headingley Test.(Getty/PA)

“Ian Botham had just made way for Mike Brearley as the captain … we were going unbelievably well,” Hughes said.

“We had them. Oh mate, we had them cold.

John Dyson made 102 and Hughes 89 as Australia amassed 9-401 (declared) in its first innings. Botham had taken the bowling figures of 6-95.

Hughes only needed to use three pacemen — Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson — to topple the English batting order. The hosts were dismissed for a modest 174, despite Botham making 50 off 54 balls.

That knock was a sign of things to come. 

The bet that came back to bite

At the end of day three — having followed on — England was 1-6 in its second innings, and odds of 500-1 for an English win flashed up on the big-screen scoreboard.

That was too much for Lillee to resist in a two-horse race.

An Australian male bowler celebrates dismissing an English batter during the 1981 Ashes series.
Dennis Lillee, right, celebrates taking the wicket of Graham Dilley in England’s first innings.(Getty/PA)

Amid cries from the dressing room that he was throwing his money away, the legendary paceman put 10 pounds on the opposition and convinced his mate Marsh to part with a fiver.

“I nearly put some money on as well … thank God I didn’t,” Hughes said.

“Like most Aussies we all like a bet, whether it’s the Melbourne Cup or something like that.

“Now until the day I die [I will say] there were no two more committed people for the Australian team than Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee.

“No-one could ever, ever, ever question their commitment to the Australian side and the players.

“And they didn’t put it on. They gave it to our bus driver, so technically when someone said to Dennis, ‘Did you put it on?’, he said, ‘No’.”

The wager netted the two West Australians a combined 7,500 pounds and a barrage of criticism amid suggestions that they had underperformed.

“When the result came around, jeez it didn’t look too good and the innuendo was there but nothing could be further from the truth,” Hughes said.

“Those two guys throughout the whole of their careers … were absolutely totally 150 per cent committed to the green and gold.”

And at the end of day three, there seemed very little chance of Lillee and Marsh collecting anything from the bookmaker.

“One of the reasons I put them (England) in was that we had a rest day, so it allowed our bowlers to recuperate and get started again,” Hughes said.

Botham leads with his bat

On the morning of day four, Alderman and Lillee cut a swathe through the English batting line-up.

The hosts crashed to 7-135 and an innings defeat loomed large.

But one man remained resolute. The man who had just given up the captaincy.

Tailender Graham Dilley strode to the middle and asked Botham what the approach would be.

“Let’s give it some humpty,” Botham stoically replied.

An English batter hooks an Australian bowler during the 1981 men's Ashes Test at Headingley.
Botham, right, plays a hook shot from the bowling of Geoff Lawson during his unbeaten 149 at Headingley.(Getty/Allsport: Adrian Murrell)

Without a helmet or a hat — and no longer carrying the burden of the captaincy — the bearded Botham was a free man and batted accordingly.

“Ian had the courage to decide, ‘Well if I’m going to be here, I’m going to play a few shots’, and fortune favours the brave,” Hughes said.

“He’d either hit it for four or miss it and no matter what we did, he just seemed to have an answer, and had an able lieutenant in Graham Dilley.

“Everything he did turned to gold. He missed the outside edge, and he’d get the inside edge and it’d go for four, and he got an absolute blinking truckload.”

Botham launched into Alderman, Lillee and Lawson with brutal cuts, pulls, hooks and drives. Any edges were hit so hard that they flew over a frustrated slips cordon.

He charged Alderman and smashed him straight down the ground for a six, which was described in commentary by Richie Benaud as going “straight into the confectionary stall and out again”.

It was anything but sweet for the Australian captain.

“You’ve got to have the gazoolies to back yourself in and that was the beauty about Both (Botham),” Hughes said.

Swept up in the excitement, Dilley made 56 and Botham reached his century off 87 balls.

Botham’s unbeaten 149 from 148 balls had the crowd in raptures and left Australia needing a modest 130 for victory on day five.

“He (Botham) believed in himself, he was just a fantastic player and a really great bloke off the ground,” Hughes said.

“I’ve often thought he should’ve been an Aussie, he had that real ‘Just follow me up over the trenches’ [attitude].”

Wonderful Willis wreaks havoc

Australia was cruising at 1-56 when the 32-year-old Bob Willis told Brearley he was too old to be bowling up the slope and changed ends.

“We only needed 60 or 70 to win and my mother — bless her heart, [she’s] no longer with us — always reckoned Bobby Willis was on drugs,” Hughes said.

“Now that was a figure of speech, obviously he wasn’t. He was steaming in from one end down the hill.

Three male English cricketers in the early 1980s.
Bob Willis, second from right, proved to be another trump card for Brearley, right.(Getty)

Trevor Chappell was out for eight fending off a heat-seeking short ball from Willis, and the lanky paceman with the untamed wavy hair struck a crucial double blow when he removed Hughes and Graham Yallop for ducks in the last over before lunch.

Willis then picked up five more wickets in the second session, sending Ray Bright’s middle stump cartwheeling to secure an extraordinary 18-run win to level the series.

The only previous occasion when a team had won after following on was when England beat Australia in 1894.

“It’ll always be remembered from the English point of view, but I’ve been trying for the last 40 years to forget about it,” Hughes said.

Willis finished with a career-best 8-43.

“It is one of the most fantastic victories ever known in Test cricket history,” Benaud said in the commentary.

“He bowled like a man inspired out there today. it was almost as if he was in another world.”

The true test of a man manager

Botham dominated the remaining three Tests, with Brearley lifting the Ashes urn after England won the series 3-1.

“Now Mike (Brearley) wasn’t the best batsman of all time and sometimes we wondered how he ever got a game, because he wasn’t a great fielder,” Hughes said.

“What I did find out well and truly after cricket — when I got to know him — he was fantastic at just getting into the psyche of different people.

“[In] the English team in those days you had Derek Randall, who was on planet Mars, he was a different cat; and David Gower, who was that comatose that World War III could go on and nothing could upset him. And Botham, who wanted to party both on and off the field.

“And you had Geoff Boycott who was that self-centred that as my late, great mate Ken Judge would say, ‘He’d drink his own bathwater and give himself love bites in the mirror’. He was pretty happy with himself.

“What Brearley was able to do, which we didn’t appreciate then, was that he was able to get each of those strong personalities and very important personalities to just bend a little bit.

The 39-year-old Brearley retired at the end of the series with a modest batting average of 22.88, but an enviable captaincy record of only four losses from 31 Tests.

Hughes said some Test careers among the England squad would have been on the line if Australia had won at Headingley.

“If we’d gone 2-0 up in that series, they might’ve made a few changes, but Botham turned it around, [as did] big Bob steaming in downhill,” he said.

“The crowd got involved, it was just one of their greatest victories ever.”

Now that 40 years have passed, Hughes does not spend time thinking about what he might have done differently at Headingley.

“I don’t have any regrets at all,” he said.

“I was part of a great time, albeit that England got the bikkies.”

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