“Let’s give it some humpty!”


Group CEO Sleepout - a picture of the group
Group CEO Sleepout

“Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection”.

You should always meet your heroes; true heroism requires the reality test. That is why Thomas needed to put his fingers into the holes in Jesus’ hands. The ultimate things in life – and death – can only be faced with the confidence of a tested truth. And, as it happens, I met one of mine this week. I was doing a sponsored sleep-out for a homeless charity at Lord’s cricket ground. (When I was a teenager, my mother once said, in a moment of stress, that I would only ever be able to earn a living if I could find somebody who would pay me for sleeping! But that’s another story.)
At Lord’s, we were addressed by, among other dignitaries, Mike Brearley, the captain of England at possibly the most pivotal moment in modern English cricket history – Headingley 1981. Every English cricket enthusiast who was alive at the time has her or his own story of that match – that little resurrection lives in all our hearts. But this is mine, just as I finally had the chance to tell it to Mike Brearley:

Just before tea-time on Monday 20th July, 1981, I was carried out of the cardio-thoracic surgery ward at Papworth hospital in Cambridgeshire and helped slowly, painfully and awkwardly into my father’s car. It had not been a good day and the rain was spattering down from a leaden sky. I had just had a lifesaving operation on my lungs. I was very sick, very scared and in a lot of pain. I had been told that if the operation was successful and I recovered well, I would be able to have another operation in two weeks time which might then enable me to live a long time – perhaps even a near-normal life expectancy – but no promises – only “might” and if I was lucky.

It was the lowest moment of my life. In the previous four days I had experienced more pain than I had thought the world contained. If I was lucky, in a few weeks I would get to relive the experience when they would do the same operation on my other lung. But I wasn’t feeling lucky and I was convinced that I would soon be dead.

As I tried to make myself comfortable in the car seat, I could hear the cricket commentary on the car radio. Graham Dilley was just walking out to join Ian Botham batting for England at Headingly in the third Ashes test.

The match situation was little better than my own: 135 for 7, following on and still 92 runs away from making Australia bat again. Ian Botham, the disgraced former captain who had been forced to resign following the humiliating defeat at Trent Bridge, followed just a few days before by making a pair at Lords, was joined by the hopelessly out of form bowler, Graham Dilley. Up on the dressing room balcony, the captain, Mike Brearley, knowing that the game was gone, had already changed into his suit and was composing his speech of defeat. Every single member of the press corps had already booked out of their hotels, certain that the game would not last into its fifth scheduled day. The bookies were offering odds of 500 to one against an England victory and finding no takers. For England it would be the thirteenth consecutive Test without a win – the worst losing streak in English Test history.

As we now know, Botham and Dilley met in mid-pitch and Dilley, knowing that he would not be selected for the next game spoke the finest words ever spoken in Test Cricket: “You don’t fancy hanging around on this wicket for a day and a half do you? Right! Come on! Let’s give it some humpty!”

What happened next is well known. Botham, determined not to die wondering went to the long handle like no test batsman has ever done – at least not since the days of Gilbert Jessop in the 19th Century. By the time, three hours later, I reached my father’s house in London, Botham had made 145 not out and England were 124 ahead with one wicket standing and I had begun to think that I might live.

The following day, as all the world knows, normality was restored. The final English wicket fell cheaply. The Australian top-order comfortably reached 48 for 1.

But then Bob Willis came down like the Assyrian from the Kirkstall Lane End, taking 8 for 43 in a whirlwind of blistering pace that he spent the rest of his career failing to repeat. England won by 18 runs and I just knew I was going to live.

I have had other low moments in my life; though never anything quite as bad. And at those times, the words which sustain me come – I am sorry to say –not from the sacred scriptures, nor even from the great canons of English literature. They are: “Let’s give it some humpty!”

Let us this week go out and profess our Faith. And, just this once, let’s give it some humpty!

Paul O'Reilly SJ