“ENGLAND have only three major problems. They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.”
The words of cricket writer Martin Johnson before the 1986-87 Ashes series are among the most famous in cricket history.
They provided constant motivation to England captain Mike Gatting and his men as they confounded expectations to beat the old enemy 2-1.
“It certainly had an effect,” remembers Bill Athey, the former Yorkshire batsman who was on that tour 30 years ago.
“We’d been written off by many pundits and journalists, and we didn’t do ourselves any favours when we first arrived in Australia.
“We fared badly in the state games, and we didn’t play very well at all.
“Our early form seemed to vindicate the comments, but that one (Johnson’s) seemed to kick-start us into action, as it were.”
Having lost eight of their previous 11 Tests leading into the opening match in Brisbane, England won that game by seven wickets after Johnson’s words were pinned up in the dressing room in time-honoured fashion.
Afterwards, the players had “Can’t bat, Can’t bowl, Can’t field” T-shirts printed as they proceeded to show they were actually pretty good in all three departments.
Johnson entered into the spirit of it when an anthology of his best work was later entitled – what else? – Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field: The Best Cricket Writing of Martin Johnson.
He admitted that although it was the right sentiment, he had applied it to the wrong side.
For that, Athey took much credit along with team-mates who were an eclectic mix of old pros and talented youngsters, each of whom played his part in a proverbial backs-to-the-wall triumph.
Athey, then a Gloucestershire player having represented his native Yorkshire between 1976 and 1983 before leaving due to the well-documented in-fighting at the club, helped set the tone for the Ashes win with a fine performance on day one of the series.
He scored an unbeaten 76 as England closed a weather-hit day on 198-2 at the Gabba.
Although Athey did not add to his score the next day, it was the second-highest of the innings behind Ian Botham’s 138 as the tourists put down a marker from which they never looked back.
Athey, 59, who hails from Middlesbrough, was initially behind Wilf Slack in the pecking order and effectively a back-up batsman on the trip, with Graham Gooch having chosen not to tour due to family reasons.
But Slack had problems early on and Athey seized his opportunity, going on to make 96 in the second Test in Perth and another half-century in the third game in Adelaide.
England won the Ashes with victory in the fourth Test in Melbourne before losing the final match in Sydney, with Chris Broad – Athey’s opening partner – starring in the series with 487 runs at 69, including three hundreds in successive Tests.
Athey, who made one Test hundred (123 against Pakistan at Lord’s the following summer), admits to a tinge of regret that he was unable to find those extra four runs in Perth that would have seen him join the ranks of Ashes centurions.
“I was yorked by Bruce Reid, who was about 6ft 8ins,” he says.
“The yorker is a difficult ball to deal with at the best of times, never mind from a bloke who’s 6ft 8ins, and he was left-arm over as well, which added to the mix a little bit.
“It was a good ball, and it was just one of those things.
“Chris Broad and myself put up 223 for the first wicket, and Broady played out of his skin on that tour.”
One of the keys to England’s success was a great team spirit helped along by plenty of liquid celebrations.
The likes of pop stars Elton John and George Michael made appearances behind the scenes, with the team partying hard in those blissful, far-off days before social media intrusion and sundry backroom staff.
“There were one or two celebrations, shall we say,” half-remembers Athey.
“At the end of the day, we were in Australia, we’d been written off, and we were up against it, so we certainly enjoyed ourselves.
“There was an extremely good team spirit, and it was a very happy trip.
“Both (Ian Botham) still says that tour was the highlight of his career, and it was the highlight of mine too, along with probably everyone who went on it.”
Nowadays, Athey works part-time at Dulwich College, where he has coached sport for many years, dividing his time between London and his home in Herefordshire.
The man responsible for bringing Sussex and England bowler Chris Jordan to England on a school scholarship returns to Yorkshire whenever he can, and he retains an avid interest in the game.
“I still look out for the scores and how Yorkshire are getting on, because it’s my home county and my first county,” he says.
“It’s good to see them doing well at the moment, and I’m a good friend of Martyn Moxon (Yorkshire’s director of cricket), who’s a good man.
“I go up to Middlesbrough when I can to see members of my family and also some old mates.
“I also go to watch the Boro as I’m a big Boro fan.”
Like Moxon, Athey might have made more Test appearances had competition not been so strong at the time.
There were a number of batsmen vying for places, and it was an era in which the selectors were not exactly renowned for their patience; Athey’s 23 Test appearances, indeed, were spread over eight years.
“Competition was pretty fierce back then,” he recalls.
“In those days, I’m afraid the selectors probably didn’t have the patience that they should have had, or that they have now, and it was very much a chop and change mentality.”
Athey finds it hard to believe that 30 years have passed since that famous tour.
“The older I get, the faster time seems to be going,” he says.
However, he will always be proud to have been part of an iconic tour in England’s history.
“We had a really well-balanced side,” he says. “That was one of the beauties of it.
“We had a top-quality off-spinner in Emburey, and a top-quality left-arm spinner in Edmonds. We had Both, a great all-rounder. We had Dilley, who was sharp and swung the ball away. We had DeFreitas, who swung the ball away and was sharp as a youngster.
“We had Jack Richards, who kept wicket and was a brilliant competitor – hard as nails and a good batter.
“And then we had Gower, Gatt and Lamby in the middle order, so it was a side that covered just about every base.”
Not content with winning the Ashes, England also won the two one-day competitions on that tour – the Perth Challenge and the World Series Cup.
Athey played his part and did manage a hundred against Australia in the World Series game in Brisbane, where he hit 111.
The tour, which lasted four months and compromised 30 games in all competitions, was a triumph of endurance as well as character.
As Gatting later reflected: “Not bad for the worst team ever to leave England.”