Coming third in a two-horse race
England's tour of Australia in 1994-95 was an unmitigated shambles from start to finish. Okay, so they managed to win a Test at Adelaide and dominate a drawn match at Sydney, which is more than the current side have achieved, but the malaise in Michael Atherton's team penetrated far deeper than anything that has so far afflicted Andrew Flintoff's men.
Anything that could go wrong did go wrong on that trip. They picked the wrong squad, with Angus Fraser omitted in favour of Joey Benjamin and Martin McCague; Benjamin's subsequent dose of chicken pox was misdiagnosed... with the result that Devon Malcolm, who had taken 9 for 57 in his previous Test innings, picked up the virus and missed the series opener at Brisbane. And they lost, humiliatingly, to Australia's nascent academy twice in a single weekend.
But the highest-profile embarrassment was saved for the Benson & Hedges one-day tournament, in which England contrived, as only they could, to come third in a two-horse race. In a prelude to the sort of sell-out which led to the Sheffield Shield being renamed as the Pura Milk Cup, and the current Aussie one-day side prostrating itself to the Commonwealth Bank, the Australian Cricket Board decided, in its infinite wisdom, to invite two Australian teams to compete alongside England and the apparent minnows, Zimbabwe .
It was a decision influenced by three factors - the marketing opportunities that existed in a double dose of nationalistic fervour; the desire to expose an extra 11 Australians to the international arena, and the need to spruce up a tournament that, on paper at least, looked like the ultimate foregone conclusion. Once the action got underway, however, it soon became apparent that England's ineptitude rendered the extra team superfluous.
Apart from anything else, the Zimbabweans were not the pushovers that had been anticipated. Packed with proper talents such as David Houghton, the Flower brothers, Heath Streak and Paul Strang, they ran Australia improbably close in the series opener - eventually succumbing by two wickets to a hamstrung Mark Waugh - before turning England over by 13 runs at Sydney. That win was their second in two encounters with England, having also emerged victorious in their inaugural meeting at Albury in the 1992 World Cup.
That shock result completely upset England's apple-cart. They did manage to redeem themselves partially with a 26-run win over Zimbabwe at Brisbane, but even their first victory over the Aussie senior side was a pyrrhic one. Darren Gough, England's find of the tour, had produced yet another of his ebullient batting performances - 45 from 49 balls, including a bona-fide reverse slap for four - but when he bounded in to bowl his first ball of Australia's reply, he collapsed in agony at the crease and was carried out of the tour with a stress fracture of the foot.
Throughout the tournament, which was divided into two segments either side of Christmas, England's geriatric fielding and running between the wickets was shown up by their younger, more vigorous opponents. One of the great ironies of an injury-ravaged tour was that Graham Gooch, 41, and Mike Gatting, 37, were two of only four players who were consistently available for selection, but their presence hardly aided England's overall mobility. "England trained and grass grew at the MCG yesterday," wrote Greg Baum in The Age ahead of the second Test, "two activities virtually indistinguishable from one another."
In the end, England paid the ultimate price for their sluggishness, and missed out on a place in the one-day finals by 0.01 on net run-rate. The qualification came down to the very last round, between England and Australia A, by now known to an ecstatically jingoistic public as the "Cockatoos". In hindsight England never stood a chance. Their opposition was a Who's Who of future Australian legends, captained by Damien Martyn and also featuring the likes of Hayden, Langer and a teenaged Ricky Ponting, and they were revelling in this opportunity to showcase their talents and mix it with the big boys.
Come the final round-robin match at Sydney , and it was another notable pair, Greg Blewett and Michael Bevan, who strode into the spotlight with a pair of centuries that set the cat among the English pigeons. Blewett's belligerence earned him a Test debut before the season was out - he would celebrate with a century and add a second in the final Test at Perth for good measure; while Bevan's brilliance launched a nine-year run in the senior one-day side that culminated in two World Cup triumphs and the accolade of the greatest ODI batsman of his generation.
England were on the rack from the moment they started their run-chase. In theory, they needed 265 to win, but in practice their target for qualification was a more obtainable 237. Either way, their attitude was scrambled as they set foot on the pitch, with their thoughts firmly fixated on the lesser requirement. Nobody made more than John Crawley's 37, and in the end, their No. 11, Angus Fraser, was left needing three runs from Paul Reiffel's final ball of the match to ensure England's passage to the finals. He managed only one.
Reiffel, however, epitomised the unsatisfactory nature of the contest. Quite rightly, the matches involving Australia A were not given ODI status, but quite wrongly, the senior Aussie side believed they could cherry-pick from their second squad at will. Reiffel, one of the stars of the tournament with nine wickets at 28.67, was whipped out of the Cockatoos squad after an injury to Tim May, only to be parked on the sidelines as twelfth man for two predictably underwhelming finals.
From this nadir, England's fortunes did improve fractionally. Somehow - and to this day no-one quite knows how - they emerged triumphant in their next international engagement, the fourth Test at Adelaide, despite fielding a team so ravaged by injury that the wicketkeeper, Steve Rhodes (series average 9.00) had to bat at No. 6
But at Perth a week later, England reverted to type spectacularly, collapsing to 27 for 6 in their final innings of the tour (not to mention the final innings of Gooch and Gatting's career). The identity of their destroyer was significant as well - the young and eager Glenn McGrath, who, like his colleagues in the Australia A squad, established a stranglehold over the English that he would never relinquish.
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Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1996
The Cricketer - March 1995
Wisden Cricket Monthly - February and March 1995
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo