Following the death of legendary fast bowler Bob Willis this week, Harry Mead recalls his most famous feat.

IMPERISHABLY, Bob Willis uprooted a middle stump to end one of the most famous Test Matches ever played. But no-one remembers how the much-chronicled match, at Headingley in 1981, started.

After Australia won the toss, the umpires emerged under an overcast sky. My wife and I were present. One of two Americans behind us, attending their first cricket match, observed to his companion: “I guess they must be the officials.”

The players then appeared and took up their positions – a vivid white tableau against the green grass and now lowering sky. But the umpires promptly judged the sky too lowering, and everyone left the field. “Gee, is that it?” came a perplexed American voice.

Of course that was not ‘it’. Within minutes the players returned. But that opening day gave absolutely no hint of the drama to come – all of which my wife and I witnessed, and we still have the tickets to prove it. Australian opener John Dyson compiled a typically-attritional Test Match century. Since it has left no trace in my memory or my wife’s it is unlikely to have made any impression on those visiting Americans. They could hardly have chosen a less suitable occasion for their introduction to cricket.

Over the next two days the match proceeded along conventional lines. Sure, England had to follow on. But that was hardly world-shattering. Test follow-ons happen often enough. And with England’s deficit a daunting 253, a heavy defeat looked inevitable.

But, as every cricket fan the world over, and many with little interest in the game too, soon knew, the explosion of Ian Botham changed all that. His undefeated 149, especially in a partnership of 117 with Graham Dilley, who at times outscored him in making 56, gave England the faintest glimmer of hope. Rightly, the glory of the concluding half of the miraculous comeback has been bestowed on Willis. But his heroics did not come before another forgotten moment of the match – one which this time was almost certainly crucial to the outcome.

Once again the key figure was Botham – with thanks to captain Mike Brearley. Willis, the usual opening bowler, did not take the new ball in the second innings. Instead, Brearley handed it to Botham. Some might call that a misjudgement, from which England were fortunate to escape. I wouldn’t – for a rather special reason.

On the evening of Botham’s batting blitz, my wife and I were dining in a nearby fish restaurant when Brearley walked in, accompanied by fellow players Graham Gooch and Peter Willey. A spontaneous round of applause greeted them. In leaving, my wife and I had to pass their table. I paused to congratulate them on the “marvellous” day’s play. I risked adding (and this is absolutely true): “A famous victory might be in sight. It seems that Ian Botham can do no wrong. It might be an idea to open the bowling with him.”

Brearley gave me the weary look of one who must suffer fools politely. But he did open with Botham, who soon claimed the first wicket – Graeme Wood for 10, the score perhaps portentously on 13. Who can tell how important that opening breach of the dyke was?

Yet Australia, needing just 130 to win, were 56 for just that single wicket when Brearley gave Willis his chance. From his first run up it was apparent he was a man possessed. Never will my wife and I forget the sight of him charging down the Headingley hill. His thick shock of hair bouncing. Arms flailing after each delivery. A leap of joy at each wicket.

The fielders surely caught his superhuman effort – and his exhilaration. A pair of particularly good catches – Mike Gatting diving forward at mid-on, Dilley pedalling backwards in the outfield – raised the excitement around the ground. Sadly, in 2011, Graham Dilley became the first of this history-making Headingley XI to die, aged just 52.

My wife and I had passed up the chance to make a wager on the 500-1 odds against an England victory that had earlier flashed up on the electronic scoreboard. As victory became a possibility, albeit never other than nail-biting, I remarked to a young lad cheering alongside me: “We are watching one of the greatest matches of all time.”

England won by 18 runs – Willis an astounding 8-43. But apart from a luckless Graham Gooch, who scored just four in his two innings, every England player had made a significant contribution. Geoff Boycott’s second-innings 46 emanated even more than his usual unswerving resolve not to sacrifice his wicket: his lbw was dubious. Chris Old took the priceless wicket of Alan Border – bowled for a duck. But, in cricket’s history, and even more in popular story, the fabled game will forever belong to Ian Botham and Bob Willis.

The Daily Telegraph published its reports of the entire series under the title: Botham Rekindles the Ashes. And so he did. But a newly kindled fire can easily splutter out. Bob Willis fanned Botham’s into a furnace. Without him Botham’s great knock would have gone down as a brave but futile fling.

What a man – in what a match. Yes, I can picture, and almost even feel, him tearing in right now, oblivious to everything except the target of the next wicket. This is what sport is all about. For devotees such moments are pure gold. They shine brightly even amid clouds darker than those that stopped this stupendous Test match even before it started.