Bob Willis, England’s bowling hero of the 1981 Headingley drama, ended his Test career in 1984. Coincidentally or not, Ian Botham also lost his zip as a bowler pretty much at the same time.
England struggled badly to win Test matches both at home and away. Starting from the summer of 1985, they just won six Tests until the end of the decade. So it wasn’t easy for me to pick the bowlers in the England Test team.
With the England Test team having an unsettled look about it for the most part of the decade, there were constant changes in the keeping position as the well. For most experts in the TMS commentary box, Jack Russell was the best England keeper in the second half of the ’80s. But the selectors picked him only towards the end of the 1988 season.
Paul Downton seemed the man of the establishment, but I have picked veteran Bob Taylor. He performed admirably with the gloves despite getting regular chances with England only in the twilight of his career.
He was 36 when Alan Knott’s exodus to WSC gave him his chance, and he carried on until he was 43. He was a fitness fanatic. During the 1981-82 tour to India, the Indian journalists described Taylor and another veteran Geoff Boycott as the two fittest members of the side.
He wasn’t known for his batting, but he was involved in a famous incident while batting for England. In February 1980, the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay hosted a Test between England and India to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the BCCI. The board arranged the things pretty much in the same manner as the centenary match was arranged. But an under-prepared wicket spoiled a lot of the fun.
Batting first, India were bowled out for only 242, but then the home side’s seamers hit back, restricting England to 5-58. At this stage, Taylor joined Botham and the 171-run sixth-wicket stand gave England the initiative and they won by ten wickets. Botham scored a typically aggressive 114. Taylor contributed a patient 43.
Early on in his innings, Taylor was given out caught by Indian skipper Gundappa Viswanath at the slips. But just as Taylor was about to walk, Viswanath went to the umpire and told him that the ball had touched the ground. This wonderful gesture by Viswanath enabled Taylor to play a vital innings for his country.
Injuries meant that he only played only 41 Tests. While he didn’t fulfill his early promise, he certainly was the best England seamer in the second half of the ’80s. His 5-68 at the Gabba in 1986 helped them win the Test.
He also bowled well in the New Zealand tour in early 1988, but his best efforts came at Lord’s against the West Indies in 1988. There, Dilley produced career-best figures of 5-55 and 4-73. On the first morning Dilley was bowling at his best, and restricted the Windies to 5-54. But poor slip catching allowed them to get away and eventually they easily won the Test.
I really had to dig hard to find my fourth seamer in this England team. I considered Richard Ellison and Gladstone Small for their Ashes success, but in the end I went for the Essex seamer. His record of 88 wickets from 29 Tests isn’t brilliant, but he achieved one thing that very few pace bowlers managed to do: he has an 11-wicket haul in India.
He started the five-match series in 1984-85 in the reserves as Norman Cowans and Richard Ellison shared the new ball in the first three Tests. But after Ellison failed to use the conditions well at the Eden Gardens, Foster was given his chance in Madras.
Foster’s 11 wickets (6-104 and 5-59) combined with double centuries from Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting helped England to a nine-wicket win, and they won the series 2-1.
At Headingley in 1987, he took 8-107 against Pakistan, but the tourists won by an innings and 18 runs.
Except for a three-year ban, John Emburey was a regular with the England team throughout the decade. While the England selectors pinned great hopes on his ability, his Test bowling average of 38 can’t impress anyone.
I have selected Nick Cook, who for a short period emerged as a highly penetrative left-arm spinner. He was playing a county match for Leicestershire when he was given a late call-up for the Lord’s Test against NZ in 1983, due to a back injury to Phil Edmonds. It took Cook less than three days to get his name on the honour board.
Bowling with nagging accuracy in the NZ first innings, he finished with figures of 26-11-35-5. He took three more wickets in the second innings. A nine-wicket haul at Trent Bridge earned him the man-of-the-match award as England won the series 3-1. Then in the winter, he produced career-best match figures of 11-83 in Karachi for a losing cause.
But he struggled badly against the Windies in the 1984 summer, and after taking 32 wickets in his first four Tests, he finished with 52 wickets from 15.
Willis’ 8-43 at Headingley in 1981 not only brought England back into the Ashes, it silenced Willis’ critics.
Willis was already in his 30s and there were people who were questioning his ability to win Test matches anymore.
He also took seven wickets at Old Trafford, but by that time all the focus was on Botham. Willis was a surprise pick for the captaincy job in 1982.
In his two-year-long tenure as an England captain, he did a good job, at least at home, leading England to series victories against India, Pakistan and NZ.
He attempted some more fourth-innings heroics at Headingley in 1983 against NZ. But this time his 5-35 wasn’t enough. NZ won by five wickets after reaching their small target of 101.
Willis played his last Test also at Headingley. He struggled badly against the Windies in 1984, finishing with 2-123 and 0-40.