With the sports world in abeyance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now’s as good a time as any to reminisce about the good old days, when England were truly woeful, but at least the show was able to go on …
Had England been a Norwegian Blue parrot, they would have been eligible for a refund as they staggered into Sydney for the fifth and final Test in January 2014. The tour had shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, and so too had a champion team. Jonathan Trott had flown home after one Test, Graeme Swann retired abruptly after three. Matt Prior’s Achilles tendon was an ex-tendon, and Kevin Pietersen was braced for his final excommunication. The odds were not in their favour. But that wasn’t going to dissuade Australia from indulging in a bit more of their favourite pastime – gleeful and gory overkill. Despite batting twice in the match, they pulled off the neat trick of winning before tea on the third day, thanks to a non-existent second innings that fell off its twig in a mere 31.4 overs. Boyd Rankin made his Test debut after switching allegiance from Ireland, and swiftly wished he hadn’t bothered, while Scott Borthwick was similarly scarred by his own admission to the one-cap-wonder club. Picked for his legbreaks, he’s scarcely dared to roll his arm over since.
There have been worse scorelines in recent Ashes campaigns – hell, England have lost nine of their last ten Tests in Australia – but for sheer, unadulterated incompetence, nothing surpasses their cock-ups on the 1990-91 tour. In the first two Tests they twice squandered leads to be steamrollered in the fourth innings, but if there was a sliver of mitigation in a low-scoring dogfight at Brisbane, then the excuses ran dry for their Boxing Day massacre. It all started so promisingly, with David Gower’s hundred and a heroic 6 for 82 from Angus Fraser, and when Graham Gooch and Wayne Larkins carried England to a lead of 149 with nine wickets standing … well, what could possibly go wrong? Enter Bruce Reid – finally, ominously, fit after years of injury niggles – who began dispatching thunderbolts from his left-arm skyscraping line. England’s next highest score was 8, they lost their last six wickets for three runs. And despite two early wickets hinting that a target of 197 might still be taxing, Mark Taylor and David Boon munched the rest of the chase without breaking sweat. No wonder the Tiger Moths seemed a good idea.
Where do you start with England’s tour of India in 1992-93? How about the initial squad, a graffiti-tag of bits-and-pieces squiggles that was deemed so vulgar that MCC convened an emergency meeting to debate the omission of two masterpieces, David Gower and Jack Russell? But that was nothing compared to the team for the first Test itself … which featured no fewer than four front-line seamers, but neither of England’s first-choice spinners, John Emburey and Phil Tufnell – Ian Salisbury was pitched in instead after turning a few leggies in the nets. India, by contrast (and you sense they may have had the inside track here…) plumped for two allrounders in Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar, who bowled fewer than ten overs in either innings, and a three-prong spin attack including the young Anil Kumble. England would blame the smog, the trains, the alignment of the planets … and even the local prawns. But, having not toured India since winning there eight years earlier, and having seen them off with ease on home soil in 1990, they simply forgot it might actually be a challenge.
“If there was one regrettable tendency on the part of the players as a whole it was towards complacency … seven years of success on the cricket field had not brought team spirit so much as a belief that, when needed, everything would come right.” Wise words from Bill Bowes in the 1959 Cricketer Spring Annual, after the dismantling of an all-time great England team at the hands of a vengeful Australia. In scenes eerily reminiscent of that 2013-14 meltdown, a team led by Peter May and boasting stars such as Colin Cowdrey, Jim Laker and Fred Trueman were routed 4-0 by Richie Benaud’s resurgent Aussies. The tone was set on the opening day of the series at Brisbane, as England were skittled in two sessions en route to an eight-wicket defeat. There were some righteous gripes about a few bowling actions – Ian Meckiff’s left-arm exocets were particularly disconcerting – but after three Ashes wins in a row, it was the squad’s collective failure to keep their eyes on the ball that cost them dearest.
For two decades, England had travelled to the Caribbean with hope rather than expectation (and more often than not, not even that). But in the spring of 1998, England sensed a changing of the guard, and after battling unevenly in the previous summer’s Ashes, Mike Atherton was persuaded to stay on as captain and attempt to storm the citadel. For the bulk of the campaign they were brawling – they lost a thriller in Trinidad before winning the rematch a week later (the Sabina Park fiasco also added an extra layer of intrigue). Their initial goal eluded them after a thumping in Guyana, but then their shot at a shared series unravelled with miserable haste too. England folded for 127 on the first day in Antigua before Clayton Lambert and Philo Wallace – less Greenidge and Haynes, more Laurel and Hardy – spanked their side to an impregnable lead with the most unedifying top-order slogging ever witnessed in the Caribbean. Still there was a chance for England to emerge with pride as Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe dug in for the draw. But then Thorpe sold his partner a dummy with a single to midwicket, and England spluffed their last seven wickets for 26.
How to ruin three months of hard yakka in half a session of nonsense. England had battled, and battled, and battled through their first tour of South Africa since Apartheid, never more gamely than in Mike Atherton’s mighty rearguard at Johannesburg. But in the fifth and final Test at Newlands, with the series still stuck at 0-0, their resolve crumbled in farcical circumstances. On a tricky surface, South Africa had scrapped to 171 for 9 in reply to 153, when the frog-in-the-blender Paul Adams came out to join Dave Richardson. His batting technique was no less homespun than his bowling action, and in an hour of wind-up-and-wallop he hauled that lead to an insurmountable 91. Recriminations abounded as they stumbled to a ten-wicket defeat – and heads galore were made to roll by England’s dictatorial supremo Ray Illingworth, whose tour-long disparaging of Devon Malcolm came to a head in the dressing-room after his failure to make the key breakthrough. Robin Smith never played again, despite top-scoring with 66 in the first innings, and even Alec Stewart was put out to pasture at the age of 33, only to be granted a reprieve by injury the following summer. As for that winter, England’s sour mood never recovered. They were slamdunked 6-1 in the subsequent ODIs, before embarking on a World Cup campaign in the subcontinent that, in spite of numerous pretenders to the crown, still has a claim to be the most embarrassing and ill-starred of the lot.
It’s safe to assume that England’s tourists enjoyed their time in New Zealand in 1983-84. What they can remember of it, however, is not entirely clear. In between the white-water rafting and newspaper allegations of pot smoking, they somehow failed to turn up for the second Test in Christchurch, where instead a team of cyphers “put up an exhibition,” according to Wisden, “that would have shamed a side in the lower reaches of the County Championship”. Shorn of fast bowlers by injury, England turned to the Surrey seamer, Tony Pigott (in the right place at what turned out to be the wrong time). He postponed his wedding to play his only Test and was part of an inept bowling display in which Richard Hadlee top-scored with 99 from 81 balls. That, however, was England’s high point. In consecutive innings they were routed for 82 and 93 – Hadlee inevitably to the fore with 8 for 44 all told. “I walked in at 47 for 7 for my first innings in Test cricket and thought, ‘Well, this is interesting’,” Pigott later told ESPNcricinfo. That was one word for it.
This was a cleansing humiliation – the sort of therapeutic flagellation on a Caribbean island that Hollywood A-listers would pay good money for in the wake of a messy divorce. And that is precisely what English cricket had just put itself through, amid Kevin Pietersen’s and Peter Moores’ contentious uncoupling in the final weeks of 2008. The new captain, Andrew Strauss, and new coach Andy Flower, attempted to heal the wounds of a traumatised squad, only for Jerome Taylor to inflict a whole new world of pain on an inspired afternoon at Sabina Park. There was no warning of what was to come as England began their second innings, 40 minutes before lunch on the fourth morning, with a manageable deficit of 74. But from the moment Alastair Cook edged to slip for a duck, panic seized their every movement. The convenient, and frankly compliant scapegoat, was Ian Bell, whose rancid cut on the stroke of lunch left England 11 for 2 in the tenth over, and ripe for the plucking. Barely two hours later it was all over – 51 all out, Taylor 5 for 11 in nine. West Indies victorious by an innings and 17. Bell would spend the rest of the tour on the margins, learning to toughen up – a spell of purdah that would genuinely transform his career. And similarly, though England were thwarted in their bid to get back into the series, all was forgiven when they reclaimed the Ashes in the summer, and began their march to No. 1 in the world. Who knew that a full body purge could be so good for you?
Just so that we’re clear, this is a tribute to English incompetence, rather than an ode to the irresistibility of their (many and varied) conquerors. So while it would be rude to overlook the extraordinary, indefatigable, over-my-dead-body magnificence of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the last true kings of the Caribbean, it would also be out-of-kilter to ignore the accidents, errors and ineptitudes that led to England being routed for 46 all out. It remains their lowest Test total since 1887, and it came in a contest that they had dominated since the very first morning. It would be remiss not to remind Graeme Hick, for instance, of the two crucial chances he spilled at slip off the teenaged Shivnarine Chanderpaul, that effectively doubled England’s target from a docile 100-odd to a daunting 194. Or to remind Mark Ramprakash of his catatonic response to Mike Atherton’s first-ball lbw – when such accidents happen, Test No. 3s tend to rise above them, rather than run themselves out off the first scoring shot of the innings.
Like the battle of Alesia in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield, Adelaide was such a traumatic and discombulating rout, most of its witnesses have been in denial ever since. Did it ever happen? Personally, I’m still not convinced. I mean, whoever heard of a team declaring on 551 for 6 after a 300-run stand for the fourth wicket, and losing? What sort of a nonsense scenario allows a side to go into the fifth and final day of a Test match with nine wickets standing and a lead of 97 in the third innings, and still lose? How can a bowler get schooled for figures of 53-9-157-1 in the first innings, then inveigle his way into his opponents’ deepest and most forbidden anxieties second-time round? Ah, well, when that bowler is Shane Warne, and the opponent is England, I guess all bets are off. In successive Warne overs, a moment of tragedy and a moment of farce shredded England’s final-day facade – Andrew Strauss was given out to a stinker of a decision at short leg, before a headless Ian Bell was run out to leave two new batsmen on 0. One of those, Kevin “Warne will never bowl me round my legs” Pietersen, was then bowled round his legs by Warne. The rest was a formality. And as word spread throughout the nation, Adelaide’s CBD ground to a halt as the city’s office-workers trooped across the river to join in the gawping. At least that’s what I thought until I woke up. It was remarkably vivid.