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Headingley '81

Ashes Stories celebrates the tales of ordinary people caught up in the greatest sporting contest of them all. This week: Botham's series-salvaging knock of 149 at Headingley in 1981 breaks more than just the Aussies' spirit.

"I don't blame Richie Benaud for it; there was no way he could have known. It's just unfortunate. People assume that a bit of Pix-n-Mix got sprayed about whereas in fact it was my entire livelihood that ended up on the floor."

During his historic, test winning knock of 149 at Headingley in 1981 Sir Ian Botham played one shot that will live long in the memory of anyone who saw it. With England fighting back from the despair of the follow-on Botham launched Aussie seamer Terry Alderman back over his head for a huge six into the depths of Headingley.

picture of Richie Benaud
Richie Benaud's 'confectionary stall' line became his most famous since his 'chase that you fat motherf...er' comment during the Australia vs. NZ test in 1973.

"Don't bother even looking for that let alone chasing it. It's gone straight into the confectionary stall and out again."

Benaud's commentary is almost as memorable as the shot itself. But not quite as accurate.

In fact there was no confectionary stall in Headingley that day. The only commercial outlets trading were for beer, hot food, score cards and ... eggs.

And after Botham's big six clattered into the middle of Midden's Egg Shack, near the Western Terrace, there was only one consolation for stall holder Billy Midden: "I think I'm still in the Guinness Book of Records for having the world's largest ommelate".

Billy Midden had only started selling eggs inside Headingley that week. It was to prove the shortest business venture of his life.

Billy himself takes up the story: "In the spring of 1981 I was at low ebb. Various financial ventures had failed and I didn't know what to do next. For the previous ten years I had made a living, of sorts, by trading inside first class county and minor county grounds in the East Midlands. I had a fairly successful sea monkey outlet at Grace Road for a couple of seasons and I was the first professional gimp mask seller to be given a license by the TCCB.

"I had always thought that getting some sort of stall inside a test ground would be a big money spinner; however when I looked into it I found that the breweries had the beer stalls all sewn up and I didn't have the right equipment or permits to sell hot food. My gut instinct was that sea monkeys wouldn't be that popular at international level, and the bottom had fallen out of gimp masks, so I was at a bit of a loss as to know what to do."

"I was watching the 1981 Lord's test with my wife and we had just seen Botham get out for a duck. My wife turned to me and asked “Billy why do they call it a duck when someone gets out for nothing?”

"I said “well, it's because the figure zero looks a bit like a duck egg.”

"Then my wife suddenly became very excited. She said: “Eureka! Billy, I've got it! I have an idea what we can sell at the next test match; it's going to make our fortune ... rubber ducks!”

"My first thought was “what a brilliant idea” but after a while I realised that there might be problems. Rubber ducks are quite bulky and so a cricket fan might not want to carry one home with them after a long day in the sun. Secondly, I found out that the TCCB had their own range of bath-time merchandise in preparation - a Peter Willey soap dish and Gatt bubble bath, that sort of thing - and wouldn't allow any competition.

picture of 'The Hoggard' woolen gimp mask
'The Hoggard': one of Billy Midden's best selling woolen gimp masks of the late 70s.

"The eggs idea was a good one so I just decided to apply for a standard egg license and see if there was a stall available for the Headingley test. I was in luck. One of the vendors - a bloke selling styptic pencils - had gone bankrupt after beards had gone into fashion and there was a spare pitch going. I assumed I would be onto a winner."

So Midden quickly found a supplier, invested the last of his savings and as the sun rose on morning of 16th July 1981 drove from his Leicester home to Leeds with 5,000 assorted eggs in his van.

"I decided to diversify straight away. I had chicken eggs, duck eggs, pigeon eggs, ostrich eggs; the lot. Brown, white, blue, plain, streaked, mottled. You name it."

Midden's optimism soon turned to despair when the Leeds crowd failed to be tempted by the contents of his Egg Shack. After day one Midden had taken only £3.

"I never lost faith even after that miserable first day. I was back bright and early on day two setting up the stall and thinking to myself: “if this takes off then I could be a millionaire”. I still believe in the idea to this day."

Trade improved dramatically over the next couple of days especially when the Saturday crowd in the notorious Western Terrace engaged in a massive food fight in the early part of the afternoon after the follow-on was announced. By close of play on day three Middens was quickly running out of stock.

picture of Billy Midden, Mrs. Midden and their children
Billy Midden (left) and his children were always grateful for Mrs. Midden's business ideas.

Midden spent the rest day (Sunday) visiting his suppliers and persuading them to let him have as many eggs as possible on credit: so confident was he of making a success of his new venture. This time he added an exotic selection of new varieties: Penguin, Platypus and Great Auk plus a couple of very special eggs for the connoisseur - 1,000 year old Dodo eggs.

On the Monday as the drama of the Botham/Dilley stand stunned the crowd, Midden found that his optimism had been misplaced. The quickly changing fortunes of the England team and Botham's batting pyrotechnics meant that Midden's Egg Shack was the last thing on anyone's mind.

And things were about to get worse.

Much worse.

Shortly after the tea interval disaster struck.

"I had thought that I would give it the hard sell and put my best stock on more prominent display. So I got my box of very rare Dodo eggs and put them on a little plinth in the centre of the stall. I even decided to knock a couple of quid off the price for a quick sale."

picture of a Great Auk egg
Great Auks eggs failed to find favour with a fussy fourth day Headingley crowd.

"Suddenly I heard the crowd roar and then BANG! It hit the stall like a missile and the whole thing collapsed in front of me."

Botham's big hit off the hapless Alderman had travelled hard and high through a gap between the stands and landed straight into the middle of Midden's Egg Shack. The impact caused the legs of the wooden stall to spread out in different directions - like Bambi on the ice - with the end result being that the whole display unit collapsed, sending the entire contents crashing to the floor.

28 years later Billy Midden still shudders at the memory.

"Every egg was smashed. It was rotten luck. Beefy's only six landed on the most fragile area in the ground. What were the chances of that?"

Probably much more than the 500-1 Lillee and Marsh took on an England victory.

A chastened Billy Midden continued to trade at cricket grounds for a few years after his Headingley disappointment. His wife suggested dealing in rare Ming Vases but, unbelievably, disaster struck again shortly afterwards during a high scoring Gillette Cup match at Trent Bridge.

picture of Billy Midden's open air Daddy Long Legs show
Billy Midden's open air Daddy Long Legs show was a victim of poor weather conditions.

Looking for something more resilient Midden moved into fast food and seeing the popularity of baked potato outlets such as Spud-U-Like he followed his wife's advice again and began his Tasty Turnip takeaway business at a number of grounds in the midlands with limited success.

For a while he tried to popularise Daddy Long Legs as a cheap alternative to dogs as family pets; even setting up an equivalent of Crufts in the car park at Grace Road. Predictably it ended in disappointment when a gust of wind blew most of the entrants into an adjourning field; never to be recovered.

But is Billy Midden bitter about his clash with an Ashes winning hero?

"No, it wasn't Beefy's fault. It resurrected his career and gave Richie Benaud a new catchphrase. Good luck to them. It was only me who ended up with egg on his face ... literally. Now I'm working on a new idea. I'm going to see if it's possible to get an outlet selling sweets, chocolate and chewing gum in all this year's Ashes venues. What do you think?"