Back to the bad old days?
It was a time when pop fans were flocking to see Take That and the Spice Girls, when house prices were alarmingly high, when a government that had been in power for a long time seemed intent on bringing itself down with a mixture of incompetence and sleaze. It was the tail end of 2007 but it felt like 1996. And then there was the cricket.
The Nineties were supposed to be part of English cricket's bad old days. The national team lurched from one disappointment to the next, with the odd stirring victory to show that they were capable of more.
They were especially bad at World Cups and in 1999, when as hosts they might have been expected to do all right, they crashed out at the group stage. A couple of months later, as Duncan Fletcher waited to take over, England hit rock bottom. They lost a home Test series to New Zealand and slumped to ninth out of nine in the Wisden World Championship, the precursor of the ICC Test Championship. Things could only get better.
And, under Duncan Fletcher, they did - slowly at first, then spectacularly in the 2005 Ashes. We all know what happened next. They stuttered and stumbled, the Ashes-winning XI never took the field again, results went back to being hit and miss and Fletcher left, nursing a set of grudges that he turned into a dismally successful book.
What may not have been realised is just how far the results have slipped in the wrong direction. England have now played eight Test series since the 2005 Ashes and won only two - which is how they did in the last eight series before Fletcher took over, back in 1996-99:
Broken down into Tests won and lost the pattern is similar:
So are we watching a sequel here: The Mediocrity Returns?
That was then
To compare the two eras we need first to do some time travel, to go and gawp at the pre-Fletcher period. Where were you in 1996? I was in Guildford, and not even central Guildford. Some way out of the town centre, in Merrow, was the Wisden Cricket Monthly office, on the ground floor of a semi, underneath a flat occupied by an old lady who was so deaf one could hear all the questions when she was watching Countdown. I had just arrived as editor and we used to glue each issue together with cowgum. Page proofs arrived every day from the printers - by car. The England set-up was only marginally more modern. The players were not on central contracts, there was hardly any specialist coaching, there were no proper plans in place for playing Shane Warne. The coach, David Lloyd, was affable and passionate but his team were chronically inconsistent. They were often rather good - for half a season (see table page 26). The team were inconsistent partly because the selectors were. In the eight Test series that we are talking about here, from November 1996 to September 1999, England used 38 players. Half of them appeared six times or less; seven were picked just once. Only one bowler, Darren Gough, played in more than half the matches. The surprise is not that this team often did badly but that they ever did well.
They had plenty of gifted batsmen - Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash (happy under Stewart and Lloyd, and averaging 40 in this period) - yet their average team total was 266. These were low-scoring times but not that low-scoring: their opponents' average was 313. And the batsmen were not good at dominating. They pottered along at 2.59 runs an over as other teams, on the same pitches, managed 2.96.
The bowlers were almost as talented - Gough, Andy Caddick, Dominic Cork, Dean Headley, Angus Fraser, Phil Tufnell - but they were missing someone: our old friend Azhar Unit. The chopping and changing was even worse at this end of the order. The first-choice new-ball pair was Gough and Caddick one minute, then Gough and Devon Malcolm, then Gough and Headley. Stewart did not trust Caddick enough to take him to Australia for the 1998-99 Ashes. If he had, he might have won them.
The tail was useless: the average score for someone batting in the last four in the order was 10, the worst of any Test team. Balancing the side was an eternal conundrum. Five allrounders were tried, including two very young men, Ben Hollioake and Andrew Flintoff, for two Tests each. Many were called but few were given a real chance.
This is now
Say what you like about today's selectors, they are at least more consistent. England have played 28 Tests in their last eight series and fielded 26 players. Only four have appeared twice or less - Stuart Broad, Ian Blackwell, Owais Shah and poor old Jon Lewis, who is a mirror image of poor old Mike Smith from the nineties. Eight men have played in at least 20 of the 28 Tests (see table below). Flintoff (14) and Michael Vaughan (11) would be among them if they had been consistently fit.
Only four of the '96-99ers managed an equivalent consistency - Stewart (everpresent), Hussain (30), Atherton (28) and Thorpe (25). So England now have a more settled team. But do they have a better one? The results have not been quite as bad this time. The series-win column may be the same but the draws are more numerous and more honourable. Then there was only Zimbabwe away, a draw that felt like a defeat; now, there is Sri Lanka home, of which the same can be said, but also India away, which was more of a moral victory - for the unlikely forces of Flintoff, Fletcher, Matthew Hoggard, Shah, Shaun Udal and Johnny Cash.
There was no moment like that in 1996- 99. But that may be because we are talking about different opponents. There is an element of apples and oranges here. Only two series, home to Sri Lanka and away to Australia, appear in each set of eight. But if you look at the opponents more broadly, in terms of standing, they even out.
England's standing has changed. For most of the first period they were ranked low. From 2005 until the other day they were second. So seven of the past eight series have been against teams ranked below them. And they have won only two of those, which is not good enough.
It is too close to call. Results were slightly worse in 1996-99 but the 2005-07 figures include an unearned victory against Pakistan in the forfeited Oval Test. Of the other seven wins three were at home against West Indies, who were a soft touch. Which leaves only four genuine, hard-earned Test wins: against India away, Sri Lanka home and Pakistan home. None of them, curiously, was secured under Vaughan.
There is another dog that did not bark here. The series victories and defeats have all been to love: the defeats have been 0-2, 0-5, 0-1 and 0-1 and the wins both 3-0.
There has been no coming back or blowing a lead, as Hussain did at home to New Zealand. (Equally there has been no winning dead Tests with the series already lost.) It is not just English excellence that has joined the list of Test cricket's endangered species: ebb and flow has too. Most series are so compressed and perfunctory that reversals of fortune have gone out of fashion. There has been nothing lately to match the drama of England v South Africa in 1998.
Comparatively the runs per wicket are revealing. In the late nineties England's average completed innings was 266 and their opponents' 313. Since November 2005 the batsmen have done far better, averaging 344, but the bowlers worse: England's opponents have averaged 372. Still, those are worldwide trends and the difference between England's score and their opponents' has narrowed, from 49 to 28. And England's scoring-rate has leapt to 3.27, only fractionally behind their oppponents' (3.35). Our batsmen walk taller these days. Just about all of them average 40 and Kevin Pietersen hovers above 50, while also scoring at a domineering rate.
The problem is that, over the same period, other teams have had players averaging 70: Ricky Ponting (71), Mike Hussey (85), Kumar Sangakkara (78), Mohammad Yousuf (78). Mahela Jayawardene and Jacques Kallis are over 60. Pietersen is top of the list by aggregate, with 2,551 runs to Yousuf's 2,498, but he is only 14th in the averages among those who have played at least five Tests. The bowling is much the same: Panesar is seventh and Hoggard eighth among the wicket-takers but they are well down the averages.
The bowling figures tell a stark story. This England simply do not take enough wickets. Since the 2005 Ashes, when Vaughan could make a breakthrough just by waving his arms at Simon Jones, the bowlers have a joint average of 36.82. They are behind Australia (26), Sri Lanka (29), New Zealand (30), South Africa (32) and India (32). So, when it comes to bowling, they are not fifth in the world, as their new Test Championship placing might suggest, but sixth. In the two years to autumn 2005 they were the world's second-best bowling unit, with an average of 30. What has changed?
Hoggard has not, except to become more injury prone. Giles has given way to Panesar, which (outside Sri Lanka and disregarding the batting) has been an improvement. The difference has been Flintoff, Harmison and Jones: one faltering, one flaky, and one, all too possibly, finished. England's various captains have been deprived of one, two or three spearheads. Having a couple of Yorkshire terriers, however admirable, does not make up for that.
Injuries are a perfectly reasonable excuse but only if the best possible replacements are picked. England played Ravi Bopara, aged 22, in all three Tests in Sri Lanka when they could have played Shah. And they lost the series not to the wiles of Murali but to the rectitude, patience and hunger of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. It was batting of the kind only one Englishman purveys these days and he had been deemed too old.
Besides going for youth, backing character over career records was another Fletcher instinct. One of the characters he backed, Vaughan, is still applying that policy. The trouble is that there is a fine line between backing character and picking people you like. Vaughan is said to warm to Bopara while finding Shah more tricky. England paid a high price for that preference.
It is still hard to separate the team of today from that of '96-99. Man for man here are the typical teams from each era (with the batting order jiggled to make the matches more like for like) and the player I would choose.
Five places are a tie, there are three wins for today's team and three for the Nineties. It is a dead heat.
Today's team have some hefty advantages: central contracts, specialist coaching, video homework. But they have big disadvantages too - more Tests, shorter series, more tours. For several players Sri Lanka was the year's fifth overseas assignment. There are more injuries now and they last longer - Vaughan has missed 17 Tests out of 28, Flintoff 14, Marcus Trescothick 18, Simon Jones all 28. The batsmen are more attacking and closer to level terms with the rest of the world: England's top six average 40 since November 2005 while their opposite numbers average 41. The series-losing runs England are conceding come lower down the order and they are often made by canny old competitors - an Anil Kumble or Chaminda Vaas - who seem to know better than any Englishman when the moment is there to be seized.
The close catching is worse now than it was then. The outfielding is much the same; it does not help that the captain is ham-handed. But England's captaincy has improved. Vaughan is more imaginative and communicative than Atherton or Stewart and calmer than Hussain. Wicketkeeping is still a muddle. Balancing the side happens only when Flintoff is fit and firing. The feeling persists that in a bat-friendly era the batsmen are not playing enough match-winning innings. They did not in the Nineties either but the same players - Atherton and Thorpe especially - found the knack later.
Overall, things are a bit better now. England are more united, better at batting and, if they are worse at bowling, it is partly because they are injury-prone. They are worse travellers (won 1, lost 9 in Tests overseas) but stronger at home (7-2). But in one area the boys of the nineties have proved outstanding. Three of the regulars went on reality-TV shows and won - Tufnell on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and Gough and Ramprakash on Strictly Come Dancing. Monty looks a good bet already but how many others will follow in their footsteps?