The tour by the Australian cricket team in England in 1981 included the 51st Ashes series of Test matches between Australia and England. Despite having been 1–0 down after two Tests, England won the next three Tests to finish 3–1 victors (with two draws), thus retaining the Ashes. The series is popularly known as Botham's Ashes, due to the remarkable performances of Ian Botham with both bat and ball.
Although the two teams were generally disappointing by the world standards being set by West Indies at that time, the 1981 Ashes is nevertheless widely regarded as one of the most entertaining Test series ever due to the see-sawing nature of both the individual games and the series as a whole.
England won the series 3–1 despite being 1–0 down after the first two Tests. Before the third Test at Headingley, the inspirational Mike Brearley was reinstated as England captain, replacing Ian Botham, whose 12-Test tenure as captain had been winless and whose previously excellent form with both bat and ball had fallen away (he had made a pair in the second Test at Lord's).
A galvanised Botham took 6 for 95 in Australia's first innings and scored 50 in England's, but Australia nonetheless compiled 401 for 9 declared (John Dyson scoring 102) and bowled England out for 174, thus forcing England to follow on 227 runs in arrears. Despite a stubborn 46 from Geoff Boycott, in the second innings Botham came to the crease with England on 105 for 5, still requiring 122 runs to avoid an innings defeat. He played an outstanding innings of 149 not out, sharing partnerships of 117 with Graham Dilley for the eighth wicket, 67 with Chris Old for the ninth and 37 with Bob Willis for the tenth, to set Australia a target of 130. Australia then reached 56 for 1, seemingly well set, before Brearley switched Willis' bowling end to allow him to bowl down the slope. Willis bowled a superb spell of 8 for 43 to dismiss Australia for 111; England became only the second team in Test Match history to win a match after being made to follow on.
The fourth Test at Edgbaston was a similarly inspired comeback victory for England. England conceded a 69-run first innings deficit, and set Australia a target of only 151 in the fourth innings. Australia reached 105 for 4 before Botham took five for 11, including a spell of five wickets for a solitary run, to end Australia's second innings at 121 and give England victory by 29 runs.
England also went on to win the fifth Test at Old Trafford to retain the Ashes, including another century for Botham (who reached his hundred in 86 balls). Botham scored 118 from 102 balls, dominating a chalk-and-cheese partnership of 149 with Chris Tavaré, who blocked his way to 78 from 289 balls. Botham's innings included 6 sixes, which was an Ashes record until Kevin Pietersen's innings of 158 at The Oval in the 2005 Ashes series. Second-innings centuries from Allan Border and Graham Yallop could not avert defeat.
The sixth Test at the Oval was drawn, with Dennis Lillee taking 11 wickets in the match and Botham taking 10.
The Australian team visited Sri Lanka in May 1981 en route to England. They played three limited overs matches and one first-class match against the Sri Lanka national cricket team, which at that time was on the eve of achieving Test status.