The newspapers came up with a variety of candidates when making comparisons with the Tiger Woods comeback. The usual suspects – Muhammad Ali, Monica Seles, Niki Lauda, Ben Hogan and Lester Piggott – all got plenty of votes, but given how low the bloke had sunk not all that long ago, I was mildly surprised that Lazarus didn’t get a mention.
Cricket has had its fair share of comeback stories down the centuries, but in the art of coming back from dead – literally in Lazarus’ case – nothing comes closer than Headingley 1981. Unless you’re Australian perhaps, in which case you’ve doubtless blanked it out to the point where it never happened.
It is now part of cricketing folklore that England’s plight was so desperate by the morning of the fourth day that the players checked out of their hotel, and that the Ladbrokes odds of 500-1 on a home victory persuaded two of the Australians, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee, to have a few quid on it.
Nowadays, with match-fixing such an obsessive topic, the ECB, Cricket Australia, the ICC, the Serious Fraud Office, and MI5… they would all have been called in, but in 1981 the only person to have his collar felt was Godfrey Evans, who was in charge of posting the odds, and subsequently invited to explain himself to some unimpressed Ladbrokes people.
Quite a few people decided it was worth a flutter, although no-one seriously expected to collect, Marsh and Lillee included. Their bet was actually placed by the England dressing room attendant Rickie Roberts, who went on to a more glamorous career caddying for the golfer Ernie Els.
Everyone knows what happened, but it was the way the unfolding news spread which made it so extraordinary. Large crowds gathered outside the windows of the Rediffusion TV shops that were on every high street in those days, while motorists wound down windows to shout: “Willis has got another one!”.
I was at Grace Road, watching the final day of Leicestershire’s championship match with Kent, and with almost every spectator plugged into a transistor radio, the cheers and groans didn’t always correspond to events in the middle. Leicestershire opener Nigel Briers was so startled by a roar for another Willis wicket that he lost his middle stump playing no shot, and an almighty cheer almost brought a premature end to the career of Kent fast bowler Eldine Baptiste, who had to have treatment on his back after aborting in his delivery stride and losing his undercarriage.
The two England heroes, Willis and Ian Botham, both knew what the Australians must have felt like after their first ever defeat to New Zealand in Wellington three years earlier. A match that, like Headingley, was initially fairly boring, apart from when Geoffrey Boycott was batting, and then it was excruciatingly boring.
With Mike Brearley back in England nursing a broken arm, Boycott was captaining the side, and decided to make New Zzzzzzzzzzzzealand an even sleepier place than it already was in those days. His first innings 77 occupied seven hours and 20 minutes, and with a splendid touch of hubris defended himself by blaming the conditions.
“A master billiard player” harrumphed Boycs, “cannot show any artistry if he has to play on a bumpy table.”
However, with England chasing a modest 139 to win in the fourth innings, Boycott made only a single as the tourists were bowled out – for 64 – by two the Richards, Hadlee and Collinge. And it was such a watershed moment for New Zealand cricket that the Kiwi survivors of that game still meet up for reunion dinners.
When it comes to individual comebacks, few can match Mitchell Johnson. A journey that began in Australia on the 2010-11 Ashes tour, when his reputation for being a frightening bowler extended only to scaring the poor sap delegated to field at short leg to him. Wondering if, at any moment, he might be cleaned up by one of Mitchell’s wayward exocets.
The Barmies even dedicated a special song to him, and when the Army returned for the next tour to Australia to find him sporting a ‘Groucho Marx’ moustache, they must have wondered whether it was all part of an attempt to disguise himself. Along with a false beard. However, this Mitchell Johnson was an altogether different beast. The run-up was still jerky enough, but the yips had gone. Replaced by lethal 90mph throat balls, and a haul of 37 wickets in the five-Test series at a cost of less than 14 runs apiece.
There can, though, be no serious dispute about cricket’s greatest individual comeback. Which is, in fact, a joint award, to David Gower, and, er, myself actually. It occurred at Cheltenham one summer in the 1980s, when a torrential downpour had left so little prospect of play in a Sunday League game that the Leicestershire players, together with their travelling evening paper reporter, accepted a kind invitation from one of the sponsors to spend the afternoon in their tent.
It may not surprise you to know that, as the rum punch count climbed towards double figures, the conversation did not include any observations along the lines of: “That’s odd. I can’t hear the rain any more…” or “did you know that Cheltenham has the best drainage of any cricket ground in England?” And after initially inviting the umpires to “pull the other one” when they announced a 10-over slog, the visiting captain, Gower, then found himself trying to get both of his legs into one leg of his flannels. Before being deemed unfit to be able to judge a ‘head’ from a ‘tail’, and Peter Willey, as the team teetotaller, taking charge of the toss.
However, it was Gower who turned out to be man of the match, leading his side to victory despite repeatedly diving the wrong way in the field. And the reporter, no less impressively, managed not only to correctly identify the two teams, but also got the result right. I think. So let’s face it. As sporting comebacks go, Tiger isn’t even in the frame.
MARTIN JOHNSON / Photo: Getty Images