The drama, which made sporting history, began at Headingley four days into the match with the visitors on the cusp of wrapping up an easy win to go 2-0 up.
Up stepped Botham with a gung-ho 149 that inspired England to snatch a memorable victory and turned round a series in which the home side had seemed certain to surrender the Ashes.
It was an incredible performance, not least because Botham’s career had seemed close to ending in abject failure. He had just relinquished the captaincy after a run of 12 defeats and his own form was faltering.
So what brought this sleeping giant to life and how did his career reflect the wider picture of England in 1981?
Journalist and author Simon Wilde’s revealing biography examines Botham’s life and career, but also reaches beyond the boundary to tell the story of the wider cultural and political context which helped to shape the unique success of a player who shook the game of cricket to its foundations.
Born in 1955, Botham was raised in Yeovil, Somerset, one of the first to be educated under the new comprehensive system.
He left school with few qualifications in the 1970s, a place that was ‘monochrome going on grey,’ a bleak period of harsh economic conditions and brutal social change.
He joined the ground staff at Lord’s where he cleaned boots, washed the pavilion windows and hauled tarpaulins off and on the pitch for the princely sum of £12 a week before becoming a county player.
The young Botham was full of life and full of himself. He was a born fighter, said one of his contemporaries. ‘If he played you at tiddlywinks, he had to win.’
An entertainer as well as a sportsman, he was motivated by the cameras and the limelight as much as the desire to win.
And it was this irresistible cocktail of talent, energy and swagger that helped to make him a hero and if the heroics didn’t happen, he could always fall back on a few scandals to keep him in the public eye.
Botham also arrived on the international scene just in time to ride sport’s first big financial wave and he exploited to the full the Thatcherite mantra of go-out-and-get-what-you-want.
In an era short on glamour and personalities, he had the presence and the talents to make the country feel good about itself again. He also proved that Britain could still produce champions and that the working class still deserved to be valued.
This alone earned him a fund of goodwill, a fund he sometimes threatened to empty but which he managed to replenish through his uncanny knack for heroics and his undoubted charisma.
Wilde gets to grips with the man as well as telling the fascinating story of a great piece of British sporting history.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)