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Ashes at The Oval: Contrasting 80s fortunes

Published: 27th June, 2019

When England take on Australia in the final Test at the Kia Oval in September, it will be the 38th time they have done battle at this country’s first Test ground.

In the sixth part of his series, Richard Spiller focuses on the 1980s, a period of wildly contrasting fortunes for English cricket.

In the story of Botham’s Ashes in 1981, the great all-rounder’s haul of 10 wickets at The Oval is often overlooked.

That’s not surprising, given stunning displays he had produced in the previous three matches to spearhead England’s remarkable comeback. His reign as captain ended after 12 difficult Tests and amid discussion about whether he was still worth a place in a side 1-0 down after two matches, Botham’s extraordinary unbeaten 149 – allied to Bob Willis’s stunning 8-43 – enabled England to level matters at Headingley after following on.

Then a rampaging spell of 5-1 at Edgbaston conjured an equally unlikely victory before his tour de force, a magnificent 118 at Old Trafford which set up the victory to seal The Ashes.

The urn secured, England could bask in the glow of success in the sixth Test in the final days of August. Mike Brearley, having returned to oversee the miracle, sent in Australia partly because he was unsure how the relaid strip would play, the first time groundsman Harry Brind had used one of his new strips for an international match.

It was to be a impressive debut, Australian captain Kim Hughes describing it as one of the best tracks he had played on in internationals, Wisden adding the description of “fast and true”.

Brearley had reason to regret his decision when openers Graeme Wood (66) and Martin Kent (54) put on 120 but after that it was down to Allan Border – whose gritty century with a broken finger had delayed England in Manchester – to keep them waiting again, finishing with 106no out of 352.

Botham shouldered much of the work, his 6-125 from 47 overs making it the 17th occasion he had taken five wickets or more.

A reshaped home batting line-up had seen Graham Gooch and David Gower left out after lean summers but suggestions Geoff Boycott’s powers were waning at 40 were answered by hitting 137 at the ground where he had made his maiden Test century back in 1964 against the same opposition, this one being his 21st.

Australian spearhead Dennis Lillee had been hit by viral pneumonia early on the tour, battling through each of the previous five Tests but now enjoying full health to claim 7-89, his haul including Boycott brilliantly snared by Graham Yallop in the gully. England’s collapse from 246-2 to 314 all out against the second new ball included debutant Paul Parker for a third-ball duck.

Border once more led the way in building on that small lead by making 84 but it was 22-year-old debutant Dirk Wellham who grabbed attention by becoming the first Australian since 1893 to make a century on debut in England.

That was despite spending 25 minutes on 99 in the gloom of the fourth evening – during which time he was put down by Boycott at mid-off – before finally falling leg-before to Botham for 113.

With Willis and Mike Hendrick both struggling for fitness, a clearly tiring Botham again had to do much of the work as he finished with 4-128 from 42 overs to claim a 10 wicket haul. Earlier, he had terminated wicketkeeper Rod Marsh’s 52 for his 200th Test wicket, taking just four years.

Hughes delayed his declaration to allow Wellham time for his century and now left England the final day to make 383 or save the match. The former looked increasingly difficult after Lillee trapped Boycott for a fourth-ball duck, honours finishing even in what was to be the final round of their long and epic battle over more than a decade.

More than most Ashes series, there was a distinct end of era feeling to the final day, England needing Brearley’s patient 51 and an unbeaten 70 from Alan Knott – who had returned for the final two matches – to claim a deserved draw at 261-7. Neither played for their country again, nor did Hendrick nor Parker.

It seemed inevitable that this would be a final tour for Marsh and Lillee, who took three more wickets to claim 10 in the match and 38 overall, although his West Australian colleague and opening partner Terry Alderman – whose selection had been controversial –  finished with a remarkable 42 victims, setting a new best for an Australian in England.

When the Australians returned in 1985, The Ashes were still alive by the time the series reached The Oval and comparisons were being made with 1926 and 1953, when the urn had been recaptured at the ground.

That England had not sealed the series before then had as much to do with rain as the opposition, Allan Border doing a magnificent job in holding together one of the weaker sides to arrive here.

The retirements of Greg Chappell, Lillee and Marsh – involved in their side’s 1982-83 series victory against Bob Willis’s squad weakened by players banned for a rebel tour to South Africa – had left big gaps.

They were made worse by Australia’s own rebels visiting South Africa – apartheid still had reverberations in world cricket through the 1980s – which robbed them of several players such as Alderman and Rodney Hogg while England’s group had completed three-year bans, chief among them opener Gooch and John Emburey.

England won at Headingley, lost at Lord’s and were then frustrated at both Trent Bridge and Old Trafford by the weather, just finding enough time at Edgbaston to go in front again.

Still searching for his best form through the first five Tests, Gooch now batted with massive assurance for 196 after Gower won the toss and batted first on a true and pacy pitch, the captain needing some fortune early on in his 157 but the pair ending any hopes Border still nurtured of keeping the Ashes in a scintillating second wicket partnership worth 351.

Ending the first day at 376-3, they were hurried out on the second morning for 464 by put-upon new ball pair Geoff Lawson (4-101) and Craig McDermott (4-108).

Yet it proved more than enough. Botham’s powers might have been on the wane but the sight of him still seemed to get Australian knees knocking – maybe it was the blonde highlights – and he developed a party piece of persuading opener Andrew Hilditch to hook down long leg’s throat.

Australia were dismissed for 241 just after lunch on the third day and only a lengthy rain delay prevented their capitulation being delayed until Monday morning. Border’s typically fighting 58 was ended by an edge to Botham off Richard Ellison – whose 5-46 took him to 17 wickets in the final two Tests, a key difference – and gained him a standing ovation as he walked off.

There was time for another spectacular catch from the great all-rounder before they the tourists were dismissed for 129, crushed by an innings and 94 runs, sealed by Murray Bennett spooning a return catch to seamer Les Taylor. It was the last contribution either made to Test cricket.

A capacity crowd had seen less than two hours action but cared little, massing in front of the pavilion while BBC’s Peter West presented Gower with a replica of the urn. England’s skipper had stroked 732 runs and revelled in what was to be the high point of his career. Border went home vowing better days would come.

If the same captains were in place when the 1989 series came to a conclusion then that was the only similarity.

In the intervening four years, the England captaincy turned into a game of musical chairs, Gower giving way to Gatting and then Gooch before being put back in charge for The Ashes. That mirrored the national team’s fortunes, the only victory in a major series coming down under when they retained the urn under Gatting through a 2-1 victory.

Border had survived those grim days and seen his faith rewarded initially by winning the World Cup in 1987, yet his side were still regarded as underdogs when they arrived.

They made a nonsense of that by winning the opening two Tests at Headingley and Lord’s, drawing the third at sodden Edgbaston and then reclaiming the Ashes with a nine-wicket success at Old Trafford, where the sense of implosion among the hosts was deepened with news that 16 English players – including nine who had appeared in the series – had signed for a second rebel tour to South Africa.

Radically reshaped, England side were swept aside by an innings and 180 runs at Trent Bridge in under four days. Now 4-0 down, could they do any better at The Oval?

Injuries caused additional problems to the extent that 29 players were used in the six Tests – debutants John Stephenson and Alan Igglesden now opening the batting and bowling respectively – against a powerful and confident team unchanged for the fifth game running.

Another defeat beckoned when Australia cruised to 325-3 on the opening day upon winning the toss, Dean Jones’s 122 aided by the prolific Mark Taylor – whose 739 was behind only Bradman in the all-time list for a tour to England – making 71 and Border 76.

The hosts enjoyed a rare period of ascendancy on day two, rounding up the last seven wickets for 143, Derek Pringle (4-70) and Gladstone Small (3-141) leading the way.

Yet the sense of gloom returned when Terry Alderman trapped Gooch leg-before for a duck – moments before rain and bad light ended play midway through the day – with his hold over the Essex man seemingly unbreakable.

It took a defiant 79 from Gower, dignified amid all the turmoil as his second spell as captain moved to a sad conclusion, but his side still looked likely to bat again until a ninth wicket partnership of 73 between Small (59) and Nick Cook (31) ensured they reached 285, both men recording their highest Test scores.

The cheer when the follow-on was saved on the fourth day suggested England had just won the series, coming at a makeshift ground with temporary stands in front of the Bedser Stand, which was in the process of being built.

Possessing a lead of 183, Australia hit 219-4dec second time round through Taylor (48), Border (51no) and Jones (50), declaring at lunch to leave their opponents a notional 403 in two sessions.

At 67-4 it seemed another embarrassment was possible, Alderman claiming two wickets to reach 41 wickets for the series, but Robin Smith was at his ebullient best in making 77no. England were grateful that bad light closed in at 143-5 so that they could limp off and leave the tourists to drink the champagne after launching their long domination of the Ashes battle.

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