Play hard and don’t lose first Test: Lamb’s lessons for England’s Ashes tilt

England go into the Ashes series as massive underdogs after disappointing results in six home Tests against New Zealand and India across the summer. So far, so familiar: exactly 35 years ago a side travelled to Australia in precisely the same situation, and if what followed does not quite provide a blueprint for Joe Root’s side it certainly offers a couple of pointers.

In 1986 things got quite a lot worse before they started getting better, with a succession of dismal results in warm-up games and performances so poor that the Daily Telegraph’s Martin Johnson famously noted that “there are only three things wrong with the English team – they can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field”. Looking back on the series now, the England batter Allan Lamb thinks even those games worked to their advantage. “I think we really pulled the wool over their eyes,” he says, “because they must have thought: ‘My God, this side’s in an absolute state.’”

On the night before the first Test in Brisbane Ian Botham stood up to address his teammates. “Ian turned round and said, ‘Guys, right, this is it. We start now. We’ll beat these Australians,’” Lamb recalls. “Then he probably opened another bottle of red wine and proceeded to finish that, and then we took on the Australians the following day. Listen, everyone looked at Ian and thought, ‘What’s he talking about? We know the games start now.’ You’re playing a Test match, you’ve got to really pull your finger out.”

Whatever the impact of Botham’s tubthumping speech, England won every battle the following day except the toss. Put in to bat, they ended the first day on 198 for two and though both Bill Athey and Lamb got out early on day two that only brought in David Gower, who went on to get 51, and Botham, who scored 138. By the time their first innings was over England had scored 456, and they went on to win the match by seven wickets. “Oh, it was massive,” Lamb says. “If you lose the first Test match it’s so difficult to come back. That’s why it’s so important not to lose it.”

Chris Broad only scored eight in that first-innings effort in Brisbane, but in the first innings of the next three Tests England’s opener scored 162, 116 and 112. Jack Richards, the wicketkeeper, played 13 innings in eight Tests across three series and his highest score outside Australia was eight; he averaged 37.71 during the Ashes including 133 in the first innings of the second Test. Graham Dilley was England’s leading wicket-taker but when his knee gave way before the third Test, forcing Gladstone Small to be drafted into the team at an hour’s notice, Small produced his finest Test performance and one of two career five-fers, the second coming in Sydney a couple of weeks later. It was, in short, a series in which everything just clicked, and England won it 2-1 to retain the Ashes.

“You’ve got to say Broad had a fantastic tour, he was the saviour there,” Lamb says. “To have a guy just pumping out runs like he did, the Aussies could never work him out and they just kept bowling at his legs – all they had to do was bowl wide, but they only realised that at the end of the tour. Then Bill Athey, the other opener, got stuck in too, so that took a lot of pressure off. Then we had the spinners in John Emburey and Phil Edmonds, and Dilley had a bit of pace. And then Ian Botham had one over on the Australians because he was sort of a figurehead, they thought he was a problem. The Australians always had this in their mind about Ian, that he could change a game. If they’d just said, ‘Listen, he’s nothing,’ and carried on it might have been different, but because of the success he’d had against them they had this problem.”

In fact the only batter who consistently failed was Lamb himself. “Thank God everyone else was getting runs around me,” he says. “I had a poor series for myself. I should have got plenty more runs. I should have been up in the top run-getters and it didn’t quite work out that way.”

The full story of the 1986-87 Ashes series is told in the new series of the Inside the Tour podcast, enthusiastically presented by Mark Pougatch and with Lamb among a stellar cast. Now 67 and recuperating from treatment for prostate cancer – “I feel quite good. Sometimes I feel a little tired but I’m just getting better and better” – Lamb watched with some bemusement as this year’s Ashes was thrown into doubt by discussions over Covid-19 protocols and arrangements for families.

“We had to pay for our families to come out,” he remembers. “We had to pay for their rooms, for their air tickets, everything. So if your wife came out with your kids, that was basically your fee gone. They have it bloody easy now, flying their wives business class all over the bloody world. I mean, I’m not against it. If they play better with their families around then I’m all for it. But they’ve also got to realise that if their wives can’t be there then you’ve got to crack on – you’re playing for your country.”

Since 1987 England have won only one Ashes series in Australia, when Andrew Strauss’s side brought home the urn in 2010-11. “The big thing is when you’re playing in Australia you’re playing against the nation. I remember when we arrived in Australia, we landed at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock at night and at customs they made us all open our cricket bags, take our boots out – ‘Where are the bats made? Is there any soil?’ They just pissed us about on purpose. They knew what the score was. We were there until two o’clock in the morning. And then when you’re walking on the streets you get: ‘You’re going to get a bloody hammering you pommies, why don’t you go back home?’ That’s how Australia was. So you’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to have some hard players out there. You’ve got to take them on, get right up their noses – that’s what Botham did. Root’s got to be really aggressive, really get his boys fired up. That’s the big thing. You’ve got to play the game they play, and you’ve got to play it hard. If you lie down the Aussies will just walk over you.”