The Ashes: Yorkshire’s Old enjoys heat of both Melbourne and Headingley

ON YOUR WAY: Chris Old, second left, is congratulated after dismissing Bruce Laird in the Centenary Test at Lord's in 1980.
ON YOUR WAY: Chris Old, second left, is congratulated after dismissing Bruce Laird in the Centenary Test at Lord's in 1980.
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CHRIS OLD’S favourite memories of playing against Australia don’t come from an official Ashes Test match.

The former Yorkshire bowler played a pivotal role in the famous 1981 Ashes Test at his home ground of Headingley when, along with Graeme Dilley, helped a resurgent Ian Botham - shorn of the shackles of captaincy - turn the match around to see England win by 18 runs.

The 66-year-old, who had made his international Test debut against India in Kolkata just over five years earlier, admits there was always an extra edge when playing the Green Caps and expects it to be no different for England’s current crop when the action gets underway in Cardiff on Wednesday.

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Old, now enjoying retirement in Cornwall where he has lived for over 20 years, instead cites playing in the Centenary Test match in Melbourne in March 1977 as his fondest moment against England’s fiercest rivals.

Over the course of those sun-drenched five days at the MCG 38 years ago - a match remembered most for Derek Randall’s man-of-the-match-clinching 174 in England’s second innings and Dennis Lillee’s match figures of 11-165 - Old himself made a big impression on the many former England and Australia players invited to watch the game as well as the 91,000-plus crowds.

The Middlesbrough-born paceman recorded his best-ever bowling figures against Australia during the game, taking 4-104 to add to the 3-39 he had achieved in a first innings total of 138 by the hosts.

England were dismissed for 95 in their reply and Australia - after making 419 in their second innings - went on to win by 45 runs, despite Randall’s heroics.

In 12 matches against Australia, Old took 40 wickets at an average of 30.80. In a career often hampered by injury, he would go on to take 143 wickets in 46 games, averaging 28.11.

His last Test came immediately after Headingley, once he had helped England take a 2-1 series lead with a 29-run victory at Edgbaston.

“That Centenary Test in Melbourne is the one that stands out for me,” recalled Old.

“The fear factor of all the former Australia and England players who were there - even in the same hotel as us - all added to the pressure. Then on that first morning, I think there were something like 90,000 people watching, the situation perhaps became bigger than the game. But I really enjoyed the experience.”

The issue of sledging, or at least the modern version of it, has come to the fore ahead of the opening Ashes Test in Cardiff on Wednesday. But back in the 70s, when Old played the majority of his games against Australia, it was a whole different ball game.

“It was always different when you played against them, as opposed to other teams,” said Old, who cites Lilliee and Jeff Thomson as his most difficult Australian opponents, along with the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg.

“You’d go out there and there would be the odd word spoken - that was pretty normal. It was always very hard playing against them and when they got on top of you they made life very difficult.

“But the moment you walked off the field, you’d towel off and in those days the batting side would probably end up in the fielding side’s dressing room with a couple of cases of beer and you would sit around and chat and then you would go back to the hotel and prepare for the next day.

“Things have changed and I think I was fortunate to have played at that time because you made friendships with your opponents.

“You may have been fierce rivals during the game on the field but, off the field, you got in and you chatted and you got to know people and it made touring very pleasant.”

And what of that Headingley Test 34 years ago? A match where his crucial knock of 29 helped keep Botham going after Dilley’s departure for a memorable 56 and enabled England to set the visitors a target of 130.

“My memories are better now than they were immediately after the game,” added Old.

“I can remember driving down to Sheffield after the game, I think we were playing against Sri Lanka for Yorkshire and you were kind of looking at the news and seeing that we’d won and I was thinking ‘No we haven’t, we were in such a terrible position!’

“It took a while for that to sink in, but with how the game has been kept alive over the years you do remember things clearly.

“When I came to the crease, Graham Dilley had played superbly well and got Ian going and the important thing then was to keep Ian going and, as the field spread out, in a way to try to get him to calm down a little bit and try not to hit every ball for four or six and that he could start to pick it out a little bit better because the close catchers weren’t there anymore.

“I think I was mentally exhausted when I came off the field because you were virtually talking him through every ball ‘now, come on - pick it out, try and be careful’ and while it was hard work, it was very, very enjoyable to be part if it.”