Just Not Cricket: The Day Australia Bet On Themselves to Lose the Ashes

Cricket Bat and BallEven if you don’t like cricket (or you love it, to quote 10CC’s famous cod-reggae hit), it can’t have escaped your attention that the Ashes – the biennial battle between England and Australia – are currently being played out.

And the second test at Lords in London made national news headlines after the Aussies besmirched the ‘spirit of the game’ when Alex Carey stumped Jonny Bairstow in a manner that can best be described as ungentlemanly.

Everyone has had their say – even those that know nothing about the sport, as tends to be the way in this age of ‘experts’ spouting hokum on social media, and even Rishi Sunak has waded in to bash the Australians for their lack of decorum. Some might argue that the Prime Minister has rather bigger fish to fry at the moment….

Speaking of ungentlemanly, all of this Ashes talk has taken me back to an infamous day in 1981, when two Australian players did the unthinkable: they bet on England to win.

Chasing the Odds

Dennis Lillee was a firebrand of an opening bowler for Australia, often considered one of their greatest ever.

He and teammate Rod Marsh were thick as thieves, and when the Aussies handed England a bit of a thrashing at the start of the Ashes test at Headingley, they spotted an opportunity to profit.

Australia rattled up a first innings score of 401 in Leeds, before proceeding to bowl out Mike Brearley’s England for a paltry 174. For those not in the know, there’s a rule in cricket known as ‘following on’ that allowed the Aussies to force the English to bat again – they would have been dreaming of an easy innings victory.

As Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott padded up again for England’s second innings, an advertisement on the Headingley scoreboard revealed that a prominent bookmaker was offering odds of 500/1 on the home team to pull off the most miraculous of comeback victories.

“Somebody told the electronic scoreboard operator about the 500/1 odds,” recalls David Ryder, the secretary of Yorkshire Cricket Club, who play at Headingley. “He decided to put it up – to give everyone a laugh, I suppose, a bit of black humour.”

For reasons that only they can explain, Lillee and Marsh decided to have a flutter on England by handing their stake money to the team’s bus driver to put on a home victory – and they watched on with incredulity with the rest of Australia as Ian Botham inspired his team back into the game.

The Comeback Trail

The ever-mercurial Botham decided enough was enough and blasted an astonishing run-a-ball 149 not out to haul England back into the game, with their final tally of 356 enough to make life somewhat uncomfortable for Australia in the run chase.

Set 129 to win, Australia were on course for a comfortable victory at 56-2….that is, until Bob Willis intervened.

He decimated the Australian batting order, taking eight wickets – including both Marsh and Lillee, the latter one of the few Aussies to put up much in the way of resistance to the magnificent Willis.

When Ray Bright was the final wicket to fall, England had completed the most extraordinary 11-run win and Marsh and Lillee were a rather handsome £7,500 in profit – adjusted for inflation since, that would be around £36,000 today.

They received their ‘gift’ when the bus driver, Peter Tribe, collected the winnings before their next tour match against Worcestershire. In the days before online betting, he was paid the £7,500 in cash – emptying a holdall on the table in front of the Australia squad. “It looked like a million dollars,” future captain Allan Border would recall.

There has never been any suggestion that Lillee and Marsh helped to throw the game in England’s favour, and indeed the pair initially denied even placing the bet – it wasn’t until Lillee published his autobiography in 1984 that the truth came to light.

Lillee was typically forthright when quizzed on the possibility of match fixing. “I’d flatten anyone who ever suggested I threw a game,” he has said. “At no stage did any of the other players think there was anything wrong with taking the odds, just that it would be stupid to throw the money away.”

He does have some remorse about the whole sordid affair, however….not staking more! “I was prepared to risk £50 on the off-chance that I might get £25,000. That I got cold feet about throwing big money away and only made it a £10 wager is still a matter of regret to me.”

Today, in an age of players being banned for months for betting on games their team isn’t involved in – or on different sports entirely, the antics of Lillee and Marsh are scarcely believable.