Brian Halford
16th April 2019

Bears in the Ashes – Bob Willis

Seven Warwickshire players have played for England in the Ashes at Edgbaston. The fifth was Bob Willis in 1981 - one of the most remarkable Ashes Tests of all. Here, Willis tells Brian Halford how the Edgbaston crowd inspired himself and Ian Botham to deliver one of the great Test denouements.

Sunday August 2, 1981 is one of the great standout days in Ashes history.

Australia resumed on the fourth morning at Edgbaston on nine for one needing just 151 to regain the lead in the series and exorcise the demons of the previous Test at Headingley.

On a flattish pitch, it appeared a formality. But they were torpedoed again by the two men who had delivered the Headingley sensation – Ian Botham and Bob Willis.

"Then when Ian came on the atmosphere reached electrifying levels. Woe betide anybody who happened to be an Australian in that cauldron."

Bob Willis

On his home county ground, Warwickshire fast bowler Willis kept the Aussies under pressure all morning with a brilliant 11-over spell which brought him two for 15. Then in the afternoon came Botham’s sensational burst of five for one in 28 balls which skittled Australia for 121.

But, according to Willis, there was also a third big contributory factor to the Aussies’ demise on that historic Sunday.

“The crowd at Edgbaston is incredible,” he said. “During that 11-over spell that I bowled before lunch they certainly kept me going – ‘Come on Bob, Keep going Bob.’ Then when Ian came on the atmosphere reached electrifying levels. Woe betide anybody who happened to be an Australian in that cauldron.”

It was a brilliant day – and a mesmeric Test match which continued the momentum which brought perhaps the most spectacular series turnaround ever.

“The whole atmosphere had changed,” said Willis. “We lost the first Test at Trent Bridge and then was a rain-interrupted draw at Lord’s and the kerfuffle about Ian Botham losing the captaincy. The atmosphere in the side was quite poor and very anti the media who were on our case. I felt sorry for Ian because he’d had a lot to put up with in the West Indies the previous winter, not only the great West Indies team but the death of Kenny Barrington during the tour which hit the team very hard.

“But then came the miracle of Headingley which was still fresh in our minds, and I’m sure it was still fresh in the Australians’ minds, when we arrived at Edgbaston.

“It was an amazing match. Australia resumed on the last morning needing only a small target and Mike Brearley bowled myself for all but two overs from the City End. It was a pretty unresponsive pitch and didn’t misbehave like Headingley, which was a brute to bat on the fifth day. Edgbaston was much flatter but I worked up good pace and bowled economically and picked up a couple of important wickets.

“There were some happy hookers in that Australian side so the bouncer wasn’t just a ball of intimidation, it was a delivery that you expected to get a wicket from as well. The art of quick bowling is to be able, after you bowl a bouncer, to change your length back to a wicket-taking delivery. That’s what did for John Dyson in that innings. He’d got off to a very good start in that series but happily we got his number later on.

“But Australia were still hot favourites until that amazing spell from Botham. The Golden Boy managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat once again. It might have been ‘Botham and Willis’s Ashes’ but, Ian having got 149 not out and 50 at Headingley then five wickets for one run at Edgbaston, put his name on it for the history books.”

Those history books feature the name of Willis often enough, though, after a career which brought him 325 Test wickets and he invariably found his home county ground to be fertile terrain as an England player. He played in five Edgbaston Tests, of which England won four.

“We had some excellent wins there including 1981 of course and a memorable one in 1982 when I was captain against Imran Khan’s Pakistan side,” Willis said. “We always had great support and the old Rea Bank Stand, now the Eric Hollies Stand, was always very vocal and normally well-lubricated.

“It must be magnificent playing there now with the spectacular new pavilion. It was much more quaint when I was playing, with the small pavilion and the stands either side of that. But even after the redevelopment I think if you ask any England player what is his favourite venue in terms of crowd support they would all say Edgbaston. It has been a very happy hunting ground for England.

“They play very well there and hopefully that will continue this summer. The England side under Joe Root is determined to play very attacking cricket so hopefully they will win the World Cup and then be in top form against the Aussies when the Ashes series starts in Edgbaston.

“It was a heart-wrenching time for the guys out there last time, losing 4-0, and our away form in the Ashes has been appalling but it has been very good at home and there is no reason why England shouldn’t regain the Ashes this year and, very importantly, go one up in the first Test at Edgbaston.”

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