Godfrey Evans was a legend in his own lifetime, and perhaps the best wicketkeeper on the leg side that cricket has ever seen. Even when he went to work for Ladbrokes in later life after he had laid down his gloves, his instincts rarely let him down. There was, however, one glaring exception that was to haunt him for many years.
On a July day in 1981, with England following on against Australia at Headingley, Godfrey Evans put out 500 to 1 odds against an English victory. That was the last time such odds were seen in a cricket match.
But we get ahead of our story.
The summer of 1981 started for Ian Botham the way much of his first year as captain of England had gone, with a defeat. Ten Tests as captain with seven draws and three losses does not do much for one’s confidence. Admittedly nine of the ten Tests had been against a marauding West Indies side at the height of their prowess, and the English fans may perhaps have forgiven him for the losses, had his own personal form not melted away into nothingness. His batting average as captain was 14.23 and bowling average 34.70, in comparison to pre-captaincy numbers of 40.48 and 18.52 respectively.
There was an air of inevitability about it when he was advised to resign after the second Ashes Test at Lord’s where the scorers had remained untroubled by his pair of ducks. Mike Brearley came back to lead England for the rest of the series, and Botham agreed to stay on in the team as a player.
On an overcast day in Leeds, Kim Hughes won the toss and chose to bat. The familiar slate-grey clouds hovering over Headingley made Brearley choose a four seamer attack with only Peter Willey providing a hint of spin. But when Australia ended the first day at 203 for 3 against the ineffective English bowling, sleep eluded Mike Brearley for much of the night as he agonised that he had made a wrong selection decision.
By the end of day 2, he was sure he had.
On what would turn out to be the only pedestrian day of cricket this Test match would witness, England made no impression whatsoever until tea. After the tea and cucumber sandwiches had been consumed, Botham, perhaps finally rid of the captaincy hangover, put in a spell of inspired bowling, taking 5 wickets for 35 runs, finishing with 6 wickets for the innings. Australia finally declared at 401 for 9, and Gooch and Boycott saw England through to stumps without hiccups. That would be reserved for the morrow.
Putting on an inept batting display that would have shamed most club sides, England collapsed the next day. Of all the commentators that day, Christopher Martin Jenkins was perhaps the kindest when he said: “Lillee, Lawson and Alderman made embarrassingly better use of the uneven bounce of the pitch than England’s four.” If Geoffrey Boycott had been commenting on the other game rather than being a part of the problem, he would undoubtedly have agreed that “England was rubbish”. Despite Botham’s run-a-ball 50 and a generous contribution of 34 from Mr. Extras, England went from 78 for 3 at lunch to 174 all out by tea.
Behind by 227 runs, England followed on, and promptly lost Gooch to a Lillee delivery that left him only to land in the hands of Terry Alderman at slip. When the umpires gave England a reprieve by stopping play for the day at 5 pm due to bad light, Godfrey Evans brought the only good news of the day to the disappointed spectators when the 500 to 1 Ladbrokes odds for an English victory flashed on Headingley’s new electronic scoreboard.
Dennis Lillee, never one to shy away from a flutter, sitting in the Australian dressing room, thought the odds were too good to pass up. In his own words penned many years later in ‘The West Australian’: “I was just gazing out over Headingley when suddenly the odds relating to the result were flashed up quoting England at 500-1. I had never seen such ludicrous odds offered for a two-horse race and announced to everyone in the dressing room, including the manager, I was going to have a 100 quid on the rank outsider. Of course, they all said I was mad for thinking of throwing my money away and demanded that I put it on the bar at the end of the Test instead. So I just sat down and didn’t do anything about it.”
If the third day had been pedestrian, the fourth held more excitement than Disney’s newly installed roller coaster. Evans’ odds looked reasonable for much of the day, and some would say perhaps not generous enough when Bob Taylor was caught at short leg off his glove shortly before tea. England was 135 for 7 with Ian Botham and Graham Dilley at the crease, and by tea, the two had taken the score to 176 for 7.
Dennis Lillee once again: “But when the odds were still there later on with England 135-7 after being forced to follow on, and still needing 92 to make Australia bat again, I had a rethink.” He asked the bus driver Peter to put on 10 pounds sterling, which after some cold feet he did.
After tea, the match saw a transformation not witnessed in Test cricket for many years.
Botham scored 106 runs and with his partners put on 175 in the 27 overs that Australia bowled between tea and the close of play. Peter Willey, who played in that match alongside Botham remembers sitting in the dressing room watching the jaw dropping display. “Botham’s knock was one of those innings where he just went for it and I suppose he could have got out any time. We were all thinking that he couldn’t carry on the way he was batting.” Peter West remarked that “it was as if the village blacksmith had taken charge of a Test match.”
When Dilley got out, the pair had scored 117 in 80 minutes and Botham added another 67 with Chris Old before the latter was yorked by Lawson. When Willis strode out to the middle, Botham hardly noticed, so intent was he on hitting fours and collecting singles off the last ball of every over. At stumps, England had a lead of 124 and Botham was going strong on 145. It cannot be confirmed, but one guesses that Godfrey Evans, while in no doubt about the result of the game which clearly belonged to Australia at this point, was a trifle worried that he had been generous with his odds.
A searing cover drive by Botham followed by a single taken by Willis were the only addition to the England score the next morning as Willis departed soon after. When the Australian openers came out to bat on a sunny morning with 130 runs to get for victory, the champagne was already on the ice in the dressing room.
Mike Brearley, every the wily psychologist, opened the bowling with the two batting heroes, Botham and Dilley. That move didn’t work very well and when Willis was brought in from the Kirkstall end, Australia was 48 for 1 and the bottles were ready to be removed from the ice.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Christopher Martin-Jenkins, writing in ‘The Cricketer’, was his usual lucid self in recounting what happened thereafter: “With his Test career in doubt for the umpteenth time, Willis, of the big heart and vicious bounce, gave it everything he knew. Brushing aside the cost of regular no-balls, he bowled at fierce pace to a shorter length and a straighter line than in the first innings. And suddenly Australia’s foundation crumbled.”
At lunch, Australia was 58 for 4. It was now all down to Allan Border, who was at the crease with John Dyson. With Australia’s score at 65, disaster struck. Border went back to a Chris Old delivery, misjudged the bounce and played on to his stumps. Dyson followed soon after going for an ill-advised hook off a Willis bouncer. Rod Marsh now stood between England and an unlikely victory. Not for long though.
After being twice rapped on the pad, Marsh hooked Willis off the top edge and Dilley took a brilliantly judged catch at deep fine leg. Then Lillee joined Ray bright and the two added 35 in 4 overs. When Lillee spooned a catch to mid-on Australia needed only 20 for a victory. The roller coaster was still doing its job.
Brearley brought Botham back to finish the job. But when Chris Old dropped Alderman twice in 3 balls, Willis decided to take matters into his own hands and in a fitting finale, knocked Bright’s middle stump out of the ground, finishing the match with figures of 8 for 43.
Against 500 to 1 odds, England had become the only team in the 20th century to win a Test match after following on, and only the second team in the history of cricket to do so.
Eight days before the Royal Wedding, the celebrations began.