Today marks the 70th birthday of England’s greatest captain, Mike Brearley. (Okay, greatest since DR Jardine then). To mark the occasion (and because it is raining at The Oval and I’m stuck in Tooting) I watched From The Ashes, a feature length documentary about Botham’s Ashes (or should that be Botham’s, Willis’ and Brearley’s Ashes?)
If you’re reading this, chances are you know the story – but here it is anyway. Botham, sacked as captain and replaced by 39 year-old Mike Brearley, roars back with a flukey knock at Headingley to set up a trance-like Bob Willis to seal a famous win, before Botham turns bowler at Edgbaston to take five wickets for one run as Australia, riven by Lillee and Marsh backstabbing skipper Kim Hughes, cede the series lead, before Botham Gilchrists the Baggy Green all over Manchester, all set against a summer of urban riots and a royal wedding. So what about the film?
James Erskine takes the trouble to set a context for Botham’s heroics – we see him in 1977, svelte and swinging bat and ball on the field (with the implication that there was a bit of swinging off the field too) and we get a handy fix on Botham’s curious combination of Sixties iconoclasm and Thatcherite politics, before he ascends to the throne of the English captaincy just in time to run into the West Indies’ mean machine at their meanest. (Erskine, wisely, chooses not to dwell too much on Mikey and Mako headhunting in the Caribbean, as it makes the Ashes footage that follows look very tame indeed). There’s a clip of Henry Blofeld (on behalf of The Establishment) bemoaning Botham’s captaincy skills and the infamous first ball “slog and bowled round the legs” before the walk back to Lord’s Pavilion serenaded by silence. Then… BANG!
1981 is a story I’ve heard told many times before (and I saw a lot of it on television live and was at Old Trafford for the Saturday 118 with the close-your-eyes hooks off Dennis Lillee) so did the film tell me anything I didn’t know? The answer – somewhat to my surprise – is yes.
The players’ contributions vary. Kim Hughes goes through what feels like an after-dinner speech minus the swearing and is much better in the clips from 1981, tremendously stylish as a batsman and touchingly sensitive and gracious in post-match interviews (if a little shellshocked). Botham, of course, is just Botham, as is Bob Willis, but the late Graham Dilley makes a poignant appearance to say that they really were enjoying themselves as much as they seemed to be biffing away at Lawson, Alderman and Lillee at Leeds. Much the best interview is given by Rodney Marsh, as demonic of eye now as then, an intelligent and eloquent speaker who appears unrepentent in sticking to his view of what being a cricketer entailed – and it did not (and still does not) entail loyalty to Kim Hughes, asterisk or not next to his name on the scorecard.
There’s some lovely detail: – acres of empty seats at match after match; players photographed seemingly always with a fag in one hand and a drink in the other; an astonishingly crass Sir Alec Bedser gleefully explaining how he skewered Botham in the Press; the sheer weight of facial hair on show; the warm-ups straight out of Carry On Camping, with Mike Gatting as Barbara Windsor.
To the central question – just how did England go from zeroes to heroes in fewer than three sessions of cricket in front of an erstwhile uninterested Yorkshire crowd – remains largely unanswered. Mike Brearley is as eloquent as ever, but gives little away beyond explaining a bit of father-figure stuff with his somewhat arrested development star player and even Gideon Haigh’s erudition and learning from the Australian perspective, suggests a bit of old Packer enmities lingering and a culture clash between the captain and the team as reason for Aussie disintegration as Botham smacked them round the park.
Maybe that’s all there was to it. England’s greatest post-war player got a bit lucky, got on a roll, got a captain who knew that’s all it took and relied on him to get the team fall in behind – they did. It feels a little unsatisfactory, a little glib – this is the greatest game and its greatest rivalry after all – but maybe there isn’t any more to it. But maybe, just maybe, there is another answer and it’s also in the film in the brief segment showing England’s West Indies tour immediately prior to the 1981 Ashes. Clive Lloyd’s men probably would have beaten either side 5-0 (as they did England three years later) and I suspect either 2005 Ashes teams would have beaten either of Brearley’s or Hughes’ sides 5-0 too. 1981 was great drama, but of a standard in which one great player (supported by a couple of great performances) was enough to dominate a series, indeed, a summer. Watch From The Ashes and enjoy it – then watch the DVD of The Ashes 2005. Now that really was something!