If it is indeed possible for a piece of sporting equipment to contain magic, then a very special cricket bat coming up for auction on June 1 must surely be infused with a healthy dose. It is the bat which Sir Ian Botham used in one of cricket's truly legendary performances, thirty years ago next month – the fabled Headingly test of 1981.
Botham found himself at the wicket with England in a genuinely hopeless position. Australia batted first and scored 401, England had been forced to follow on after a first innings of 174 and were seven down for 137 in the second innings, still 90 runs adrift of an innings defeat, when Botham reportedly said to batting partner Peter Willey, "right then, let's have a bit of fun...".
What happened next turned not just the game, but the series, his career, made him a genuine national hero and if there was one single act which earned him a Knighthood, it was this one. This is the Duncan Fearnly bat with which the fourth best innings of all-time was played.
In terms of authority, Wisden remains the cricketer's bible. Its diligence in maintaining historical perspective is so robust (check out the weightings criteria) that Botham's outrageous innings that afternoon in 1981 has put him among esteemed company indeed.
Only Sir Donald Bradman's 270 for Australia (v England at Melbourne in 1936-37), Brian Lara's 153* for West Indies (v Australia at Bridgetown in 1998) and Graham Gooch's 154* for England (v West Indies at Headingley in 1991) are rated better by Wisden, in the entire history of the sport. In fifth place was a faultless Bradman 299 not out.
In the Wisden ranking, the importance of the match, the state of the wicket, the quality of the opposition, and another dozen criteria are fastidiously ranked to obtain an accurate picture of the importance of the innings. Sadly, in ranking this the fourth most important innings of all-time, several key criteria were not considered. Botham had just stood down as Captain of the English team after losing all form with the bat.
So too, the English economy and indeed the outlook of the entire nation was in bad shape. In its national sport, the English cricket team was being subjected to ritual humiliation at the hands of the colonial up-starts. Headingly was the third of a five match bi-annual test series between the nations and the score before the match was a one-zip lead to Australia with the second test thoroughly deserving of an Australian win.
Botham arrived at the wicket with just two batsmen of dubious quality remaining in the shed, and his "bit of fun" gathered momentum as it went. 148 balls later, he had clubbed 27 fours and a six to score better than a run a ball for his 149 not out, but more importantly, England had assembled a lead of 130 runs for Australia to chase.
Bob Willis then completed the fairy tale for England by taking 8/43 and scuttling the Australians 20 runs short. It was only the second time in the history of test cricket, that a team had followed on and won. That feat had only been done once before in 1894-95, though it has since happened in India when VVS Laxman scored 281 (for the sixth best innings of all time) to turn a game and a series against Australia.
Wisden described the innings as "some of the most outrageous hitting ever seen at this level", and it's not hard to find footage of the innings on Youtube. Watching the ease with which Botham smashed balls to the boundary, I couldn't help but wish we'd seen him play in the Twenty20 format.
One of the reasons the innings was rated so highly, was that Botham smashed his 149 not out against a very capable Australian pace attack containing Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson.
What Botham's inspirational performances that summer did for a bleak Britain beset by economic woes was truly uplifting. Wisden called Botham, "England's last authentic cricketing hero" and this is the bat her carried in his finest hour.
I'm still amazed that items like this can be purchased so affordably. Bonhams estimates the bat and stump will sell for between GBP$2,000 and GBP$2,500.
I might buy it myself for that!
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