No. 42: One Sunny Saturday, and a Leg of Lamb

The late summer of 1985 would be a particularly memorable one for me. Having returned back home from boarding school in the dark forests of the Quantocks, the sun would be shining almost every day in late July and almost all of what would be a truly glorious August.

1985 would be Ashes year, with the Australian squad making their way to England shorn of a number of players who had thrown in their lot with the rebel tourists in South Africa. The leader of that infamous rebel tour would be former skipper Kim Hughes, whose tearful resignation during the West Indies’ tour down under in 1984-85 would quite literally be a watershed in the recent history of Australian cricket. Derided by the machismo Australian press for his tears and subsequent treachery, Hughes would never wear the famous baggy green again; his replacement would be a man cut from a completely different cloth in the gritty Queenslander Allan Border.

David Gower’s England meanwhile had recovered from their painful “blackwash” at the hands of the visiting West Indians in 1984 with an historic 2-1 series win in an inhospitable India, and with a number of players from their own rebel tour now fully reintegrated back into the squad it was always going to be an interesting six-match series – back in the day when an Ashes series would occupy the entire summer. An era without back to back tests, and where the tourists would break things up with a collection of matches against county sides.

The opening test at Headingley would see England take an early lead. Australia’s 331 would be overhauled by England’s 533 with Nottinghamshire’s Tim Robinson scoring 175, and their tourists’ second innings score of 324 would not be quite enough as Gower’s side stumbled their way to their target of 123 for the loss of five wickets.

Lord’s had always been an unhappy home for England back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it would prove to be the case again as Border’s side unexpectantly turned the tables. England would be bundled out for 290, and the Australian skipper would respond with a typically gritty innings to finish four short of a double century as his side racked up 425 and a crucial lead of 135. Despite a belligerent 85 from Ian Botham England couldn’t haul themselves back into the match, and Border would lead from the front once again with an unbeaten 41 to guide his team a four-wicket victory.

A docile and unhelpful track at Trent Bridge would see both sides score heavily as the game meandered to a draw, and the combination of the limpet-like Border and the infamous Old Trafford weather would be deny England in a match where they would be on top for the first four rain-affected days.

With the series poised nicely at 1-1, things would be nicely set as both teams headed to Edgbaston, the game that would always stick in my memory and provide the perfect summary of that memorable summer. A game that would be defined by one glorious Saturday, and a Monday afternoon where cricket lovers would see the moment that I would always call “the leg of Lamb”.

Nobody could have predicted what would happen next after what had been a fairly ordinary opening two days blighted by inclement weather, with the Australians finishing on 335/8. It had been a topsy-turvy innings, with the men in the baggy green caps reaching 189/2 before stumbling to 218/7 and then recovering thanks to fast bowlers Geoff Lawson, Craig McDermott and the once-feared Jeff Thomson.

Then came that bright and unexpectedly warm Saturday that would turn the direction of the match – and with it the destiny of the Ashes. 17th August 1985, a day when England would truly wrest the initiative from a stubborn but gradually ailing foe. 17th August 1985, the day when Tim Robinson and David Gower would run riot.

The day would being dramatically enough even before England would start their innings. Resuming on their overnight score, Lawson and Thomson had already put on 59 runs and would look to pick up where they had left off – but England would have other ideas. They would seize upon the early morning panic that would see Lawson being run out for 53 before a further run had been scored, and swingmeister Richard Ellison would then wrap things up as number eleven Bob Holland was dispatched for a fourth-ball duck. The Kent man would finish with figures of 6-77.

England would reach 38 before Graham Gooch swished at Thomson and was caught behind, but crowd would not know the treat they would be in for as Gower ambled to the crease. With that famous mop of blond curly hair peeking out from under his blue helmet, the England captain would deliver a masterclass. Every shot would come off: the smooth clips off the legs. The crisp drives on both side of the wicket. That distinctive swish of the blade that would look ugly when clipping the ball to slip on a bad day, but on this day graceful and truly glorious. Robinson would be no slouch either as he joined his skipper in carting the woeful Australian bowlers to all parts. It was pure buffet, and the England batsmen just gorged on the short and tasty half-volleys and long-hops. By the close, England had stormed to 355/1, with Robinson on 140 and Gower on 169.

Australia would have the rest day to mull over things, and when play resumed on Monday would strike early to remove Robinson for 148. But this would just be the prelude to the second act. Fresh from his 160 at Old Trafford, Mike Gatting would join in the fun as he pulled and punched at will. Poor Thomson would be flying off the bat at a rate of over five an over, and Gower would motor past the two-hundred mark in that familiar languid style. Gower was one of those batsmen who could inflame and inspire in equal measure: on a good day, he would caress and feather the ball to the boundary. On a bad day, he would look like comedian Ken Dodd with his feather duster. On this day, we would see the best of the man known as “Lord”, and when he finally fell in the afternoon session for 215, there would be rapturous applause from the Birmingham crowd.

But England were not done yet, as Gatting continued to plunder runs with Allan Lamb. With Gatting moving towards his second successive century he and Lamb would put on 109 for the fifth wicket, setting up what would be cameo of the match from Botham. Looking like the comic cavalier with his bleached blond hair and no helmet, England’s perennial Ashes hero would twice launch the ball into the crowd off McDermott. He followed this up with another boundary to take himself to eighteen from just ten balls, but the eleventh would see him spoon a shot into the hands of the mulleted Thomson at deep square leg.

Thomson, a shadow of the bowler he had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside Dennis Lillee, could offer nothing more than a two-fingered insult at the crowd who had been barracking him all morning. Nobody would be insulted, and everyone just laughed.

With the score at 592/5 Gatting would need just three more to reach his century, and Gower would make the declaration and give his bowlers a crack at the Australian openers.

On a roll following their impressive batting display, the England bowlers knew they would have a job to do – and what a job they did. “Happy Hooker” Andrew Hilditch would be quick off the blocks, but would be caught by Ellison in the deep off Botham after playing one suicidal hook shot too many. Expat South African Kepler Wessels would follow, nicking the ball behind off Ellison. At 32/2 Australia would send in the bunny Bob Holland as nightwatchman, a plan that would backfire immediately as Ellison trapped him plumb lbw first ball. When Wood was felled by Ellison after a painful 82-minute vigil the score would be 35/4.

In would step Allan Border, Australia’s captain courageous. Could he stave off the rampant England attack? At the very least, could he hold out until the following day? He would keep out Ellison’s hat-trick ball and would survive sixteen further deliveries as he took his total to two runs – and then it came. Pitched on a good length, the ball would cut and swing back inside. Playing no stroke, Border could do nothing as it clipped the top of the bails. Ellison and England were ecstatic, the barnacle had been prised off, and Australia were looking down and out at 36/5. One more one would be added before the close, and Australia would be left with a mountain to climb.

The players left to climb that mountain when play resumed on the Monday would be Greg Ritchie and wicketkeeper Wayne Phillips. After the England pacemen had failed to make the initial breakthrough it would once again be the Phil Edmonds and John Emburey show, but the Aussies would see themselves through to the lunch break.

At 113/5 Australia were still a distance away from making England bat again, but were starting to look comfortable with Ritchie on twenty and Phillips, displaying a mix of patience and calculated aggression, on 59. With Edmonds bowling over the wicket and the square crowded with close fielders, the left-handed Phillips would chop the ball down into the legs of silly point fielder Allan Lamb – only to see the ball loop back into the hands of Gower, stationed close by at silly mid-off. The England players would look at the umpires.

Had the ball hit the ground? Had it come off the side of Lamb’s boot? The archive replays – just like England’s third goal at the FIFA World Cup final in 1966 – will never really prove conclusive, but in the days long before Hawkeye, Hotspot, Snicko, reviews, referrals and high definition slow-motion replays it would have to be a straightforward call from the men in the middle. To think that we didn’t even have pitch audio in England back then.

After consulting with his colleague David Constant at square leg, David Shepherd would raise his index finger.

His face grey and ashen, the mustachioed Phillips would trudge off the field, and with him take his sides chance of pulling off a miracle. His departure would precipitate a dramatic collapse: Ritchie would fall with just one more run added, Lawson would be snared by the smooth and snarling Edmonds, and O’Donnell would see his timber cartwheeling out of the ground as the rampant Botham thundered in to take his share of the spoils. The man popularly known as “Beefy” would then have McDermott caught in the deep to take his third wicket of the innings, as Australia were all out for 142. The man of the match however would be Ellison, whose 4-27 in the second innings would give him outstanding match figures of 10-104.

With victory by an innings and 118 runs England would move 2-1 in front in the series, with just a draw required at the Oval in the sixth and final test to secure the precious urn. However, momentum would see them more than chasing the draw: with the Aussies looking completely broken, they would go in for the kill.

The defeat at Edgbaston had sucked all of the remaining life out of the Australians, though Border would remain standing to take the punches right to the end. A stylish 196 from Gooch and another breezy century from the mercurial Gower would entertain the South London crowd and see the hosts through to 464, and Greg Ritchie’s fighting unbeaten 64 would be unable to prevent the follow-on. By this time the Aussies were probably thinking of the flight back home, as they subsided to a miserable 129 all out and a second successive innings thrashing.

The tourists’ second-highest score would be the eleven scored by bespectacled slow left armer Murray Bennett, whose wicket would be gobbled up by the indefatigable Taylor to bring things to a suitable close – a looping return catch would be the greatest moment in the cricketing career of the former coal miner from Earl Shilton in Leicestershire. In days far removed from today’s sporting celebrities and tattooed tweeters, Les Taylor truly was salt of the earth: after retiring from first class cricket at the end of the 1980s, he would return home to take up a job as a postman.

No razzmatazz. David Gower with the 1:1 scale replica urn in 1985. Left to right: Allan Border, Gower, Peter West.No razzmatazz, just the urn. Allan Border, David Gower and Peter West

David Gower’s post-match interview with the BBC’s Peter West on that Oval balcony would see him jokingly refer to the West Indies “quaking in their boots” ahead of England’s trip to the Caribbean early the following year – a trip that would turn into yet another one-sided massacre at the hands of the brutal Caribbean quicks. But on the afternoon of September 2nd 1985, English cricket would be at its highest ebb.

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