Apologies for being a little tardy with this review, being that this updated account was published to coincide with July’s anniversary of that extraordinary game of cricket 361 months ago. For those of a certain age, this will forever be the English cricket fans’ JFK moment. We all know where we were the day that Bob Dylan Willis went nuts and shot down the Aussies or the day before, when his bearded accomplice, Sir Beefy of Bothamshire, had moved the antipodeans into no-man’s land with his 145 run assault then raced to the pavilion, sat down with 3 lions on his cable-knit jumper and smoked a slim panatella.
I know where I was – in Eric Jones’ maths class. Mr Jones was old-school; a war veteran, a quiet disciplinarian, of grey hair, Ronnie Barker specs and furrowed brow, who occasionally let a wry sense of humour decorate his lessons without losing grip of the controls. As I said, old school, to the extent that he knew that some things in life are more important than the curriculum.
As we trooped into his class on the afternoon of Tuesday 21st July 1981 the black and white before our eyes was not chalk on board but a primitive Sony portable TV. Word had spread during lunch break (Pearce had smuggled in a transistor radio) that the Aussies were in deep trouble and Mr Jones was not going to deprive his pupils of the chance to witness this historical moment. Thirty boys and a master huddled round the tiny screen to see first Chris Old dropping Alderman – twice, to fatalistic groans, then Willis cartwheeling Bright’s middle stump to joyous cheers.
I concur with Gideon Haigh when he observes in the foreword, ‘It happened, and, for some, never stopped. Thirty years on, and the Headingley Test seems eerily contemporary.’
The England XI have given us many memorable moments since, I was there at the Oval when Devon Malcolm took nine south African scalps, our current all-conquering side seem to engineer a bus fleet of them, but none match the drama of those 24 weird hours three decades ago. In years to come there will be documentaries celebrating ‘Freddie’s Ashes’, focussing on Geraint Jones‘ sprawling catch off Kasprovitch’s glove at Edgbaston, but Headingley ‘81 will forever remain a glowing memory without equal.
I had long thought Mike Brearley’s ‘Phoenix from the Ashes’ to be the definitive account, but this book trumps it, at least in Headingley terms. Brearley’s great book took in the whole summer, whereas ‘500-1′ is the anorak’s almanac of the incredible third test; the miracle.
Most of the key players (in its widest sense) have been interviewed for their tuppenyworth/invaluable insight and those who have not (including one Ian Botham) have published enough autobiographies down the years to aid the authors’ research.
The key chapters, three and four, which set the stage, introduce the participants and recount the details of the match, are presented ‘as live’ without hindsight by the authors and this device is successful in achieving their aim of capturing the time, the atmosphere, anticipation and drama as the events unfolded. Of course, they eat their cake too, with snippets of dry, knowing humour; Dilley is described as “not shy of giving the ball a crack, he is developing into a useful No. 9”; Of Gower, “one can only pray they (the selectors) don’t do anything silly…and make him captain.”
This is holiday reading of the first water. If you want a criticism, then some will find the socio-political portrait of Britain in 1981 veers too far towards a subjective left-wing rant on the evils of Thatcherism rather than a calm, sage, objective analysis of the evils of Thatcherism..
Messers Steen and McLellan have upturned every possible stone that constitutes this story and for that we can say a hearty thanks, as can generations not yet born, who will be able to marvel at the account of this cricket match, or should I say bloody miracle.
500-1 The Miracle of Headingley ‘81 by Rob Steen & Alastair McLellan and published by John Wisden, pp. 269, price £9.99.