After their humiliating World Cup bellyflop, a four-Test home series against New Zealand was exactly what England might have asked for a chance to regain lost face, and establish young players, against one of the least-feared sides on the international circuit. England went in as clear favourites. Coming off a not-too-disastrous Ashes tour, and that morale-boosting win over South Africa in 1998, their form was much stronger in Tests than one-day games. And when they turned a 100-run deficit into a cheeky seven-wicket win at Edgbaston, it all looked very predictable. New Zealand, sacrificial victims in three of England's last five winning series, would surely fulfil their customary role once again.
New Zealand's prospects were hardly improved when Simon Doull, the only proven match-winner in their attack, sustained a knee injury that forced him home. English supporters, traditionally pessimistic, found themselves predicting a 4-0 whitewash. But this was not the New Zealand of old. Steeled by their gruff Australian coach, Steve Rixon, these players discovered a defiant streak of self-belief, as well as resilient team spirit that contrasted with the infighting and backbiting of the previous few years. Already this summer, New Zealand had outplayed Australia on their way to a World Cup semi-final. Even their new nickname, the Black Caps, bespoke All-Black aggression rather than vulnerable, flightless prey, and they turned out to be world-class sledgers.
And there was still the Lord's factor to consider. England's haplessness at the home of cricket was a leitmotif of the 1990s: this time, they were 183 for nine by the first-day close, and it took the Dunkirk spirit of Chris Read and Andy Caddick to make New Zealand bat twice. For the fourth year running, England had come away from Edgbaston brimming with confidence, only for it all to drain away down the famous slope. Worse still, Nasser Hussain, who had made an admirably positive start to his term as captain, suffered a broken finger while fielding in the gully. He missed the next match, a rain-ruined draw at Old Trafford, where England's incompetence left New Zealand looking more like a Rest of the World XI.
England had completely held the upper hand on only one of the series' 12 days so far, yet somehow the score still stood at 1-1. Another great summer, seemed a safe bet when the New Zealanders faltered against Essex at Chelmsford. It was not just the embarrassment of losing by an innings and 40 runs: Geoff Allott, the World Cup's joint leading wicket-taker, strained his back, and the build-up of broken-down bowlers threatened to reach epidemic proportions when Chris Cairns developed leg trouble. Hardly ideal preparation for the decisive Oval Test. Yet, when the time came, New Zealand weathered a period of early pressure, stretching from 87 for six to reach a total of 236. In reply, England could manage only 153. By conceding a first-innings deficit for the 14th consecutive Test, they set a world record (a sequence they contrived to continue in South Africa).
England had actually won four of those Tests and, this time, Caddick and the debutant Ed Giddins pitched the ball further up and swung the game back their way. At 39 for six, New Zealand were in danger of choking spectacularly. But Cairns, who had shrugged off his injury in record time, now effected an equally dramatic recovery for his team. Clubbing Phil Tufnell for four sixes, he recovered the initiative with a ballistic 80 from 94 balls - the decisive contribution to New Zealand's 83-run victory. His first-innings figures of ball for 31 were hardly incidental either. Since taking over Doull's new-ball duties, Cairns had blossomed into the strike bowler that New Zealand had lacked since Richard Hadlee's retirement. Inconsistent and apparently unfulfilled for so many years, he was now one of the world's leading all-rounders by any yardstick.
|England v Australia||1888|
|West Indies v England||1934-35|
|West Indies v England||1950|
|West Indies v England||1989-90|
|South Africa v New Zealand||1994-95|
|Pakistan v Zimbabwe||1994-95|
|Sri Lanka v Pakistan||1995-96|
|Sri Lanka v New Zealand||1997-98|
|New Zealand v England||1999|
For England, misery, was unconfined. Losing to New Zealand, one of the two teams - with India- that they have regularly beaten in recent years, was bad enough. Losing after going one up, something that has only happened on eight other occasions in three or four-Test series, was worse still. But what really started the media circling like vultures over the body of English cricket was the news that they were now the worst Test team in the world, according to the Wisden World Championship at least. This result toppled England from seventh to ninth place. New Zealand, who had been bottom since the table was launched in November 1996, climbed one place to eighth, just behind Zimbabwe. Echoing the Ashes announcement of 1882, The Sun turned its front pace to its obituary for the English game.
It was easy to blame the administrators, and justified as well. Football managers are fond of saying that there are no easy international games - and this is doubly true among the cricketing elite - but England's management committee seemed to take victory for granted. It was one thing to use this series to bed in a new captain before the tougher-looking tour of South Africa; it was quite another to allow the coach to leave after the World Cup without having lined up a successor. David Lloyd's premature departure meant England went into a series without a coach for the first time since 1986, the last time they lost a series to New Zealand. Instead, England made do with Graham Gooch, who supervised nets and fielding practices, and manager David Graveney. Lloyd's wholehearted moral support was badly missed, as was the layer of insulation he provided between team and management.
Yes, Lloyd was eccentric, impulsive, and sometimes plain wrong-headed. But he had never got into anything like this muddle. The worst confusion surrounded the selection of captains - captains plural, because England were led by four different men during the summer, just as they were during the notorious 1988 series against West Indies. Alec Stewart oversaw the World Cup campaign, and paid the price for failure, despite two creditable Test series in charge. The baton then passed to Hussain, Stewart's heir apparent for the previous year. But there was no obvious deputy to Hussain. Murphy's Law applied and, when he broke a finger at Lord's, the policy of not appointing a vice-captain for home Test series was exposed.
On his way to the ambulance, Hussain asked Graham Thorpe, his best friend in the team, to take over. With New Zealand already piling up a weighty advantage, this was what you might call a hospital pass. Sure enough, Thorpe went into his shell, England went down by nine wickets, and the selection committee ( Mike Gatting, Gooch and chairman Graveney) went looking for other options. When Hussain failed to recover in time for Old Trafford, they decided that Mark Butcher should lead the team - a big ask, in the professionals' idiom, for a man who was neither a county captain nor a Test fixture.
In the event, England were almost as rudderless as they had been at Lord's. Butcher scored five and nine and, if he felt lonely in the field as New Zealand steamed to 496 for nine declared, it must have been worse still when he was sent down after the game to face the media. Even experienced captains are usually accompanied by a coach or manager, but this time the only support came from Brian Murgatroyd, England's media relations officer. Fortunately, Butcher is one of the most thoughtful, articulate cricketers in the country: he genially accepted that England's performance had been substandard, and said that his place was in danger. He was right on both counts. When Hussain returned for The Oval, Butcher had to sling his hook.
So did two of the selectors. Before Old Trafford, Gooch and Gatting had successfully argued that Graeme Hick should represent England for the eighth summer out of nine, a decision described by the Daily telegraph cricket correspondent as buttock-clenchingly grim. Hick's performance was inconclusive - his one innings yielded 12 runs and a hopeless lbw decision - but his two leading supporters drew flak for being preoccupied with their old chums from the county circuit. They were quietly asked to step down, leaving the bulletproof Graveney to pick the Oval squad with advice from Hussain and England's incoming coach Duncan Fletcher, who was not due to take over officially until the South African tour.
Gooch was characteristically tight-lipped about the affair, except to say: In my experience, the best sides in any sport are a balance between experience and youth.And to be fair, there was no shortage of fresh blood running through England's veins. Four players made their Test debuts during the summer, starting at Edgbaston with Read, Nottinghamshire's wicket-keeper, and Aftab Habib, the Leicestershire batsman. They brought the average age of the side down to 28, two years lower than it was for the opening World Cup game against Sri Lanka. But Habib was dropped like a hot potato after Lord's, having failed three times, and Read predictably gave way to Stewart when the chips were down at The Oval. Just as predictably, once he had taken back the gloves, Stewart gave away his wicket for scores of 11 and 12.
Still, Read had shown enough grit to suggest he could yet become a pearl. And he wasn't the only youngster to shine. Surrey's 21-year-old fast bowler Alex Tudor made a positive impression on the Ashes tour, but that was as nothing compared to his fearless tour de force at Edgbaston. After bowling wastefully, Tudor went in as night-watchman, with England chasing 208 to win, and turned the game upside down. Flailing his heavy bat at anything wide, and clipping off his toes like an overgrown Gavaskar, he acted the senior partner in vital stands with Butcher and Hussain, and was only stranded one run short of a maiden first-class hundred by Thorpe's thoughtlessness. It was a thunderous innings, but, in such a summer, even England's silver linings seemed to fade back into the clouds. Tudor withdrew from the Second Test when a scan revealed a hot spot in his knee that threatened to become a stress fracture. He would not appear again in the series. The England camp were furious, as Surrey had arranged the medical appointment without telling them - another damaging outbreak of county-versus-country strife.
Apart from Tudor, Caddick was the only England player who genuinely enhanced his reputation. Absent from the team for 15 months, he bowled with stamina, accuracy, jarring bounce and elusive swing, and finished with 20 wickets at 20.60. His comment that it was just like playing for Somerset reflected well on Hussain, who felt that his predecessors had been guilty of ostracising complex or awkward characters rather than making them feel part of the team. Caddick also finished a worthy sixth in the batting averages, despite an infuriating habit of running himself out. The irony was that he might have been playing for the opposition if Cairns had not kept him out of New Zealand's age-group sides.
Although the rest of England's bowling was unexceptional, the team's real problem was a lack of runs. The top score for England over the four Tests was Tudor's 99 not out - the first time since the 19th century (discounting the handful of Testless seasons and the one-off against India in 1932) that England had gone through a domestic summer without a home-made Test hundred. Mike Atherton, called up after the Lord's débâcle, showed all his old stickability in scoring 11 in 136 minutes at Old Trafford, but only he, Hussain and Stewart averaged more than 30. At the end of the season, the selectors responded by ditching Mark Ramprakash, England's most consistent batsman on the last two winter tours. Thorpe had already announced that he would rather stay at home with his family than go to South Africa. His leadership credentials had been dismissed, for England as they had been for Surrey. It was unclear what impact this made on his decision.
While Ramprakash drew criticism for not imposing himself on the game, England generally erred in the other direction: when runs dried up, they lost patience too quickly. New Zealand forced the issue by maintaining an impeccable off-stump line throughout the last three Tests. As Stephen Fleming said, denial was a form of attack. Cairns was supported superbly by Dion Nash, now fully recovered from a horrendous back injury and an unhappy year at Middlesex, while the studentish 20-year-old Daniel Vettori looked more threatening than Tufnell, his slow left-arm rival. With those three bowlers also contributing resourceful runs, New Zealand's batting order resembled Doctor Dolittle's two-headed pushmi-pullyu. At Old Trafford, every man in the side had made a first-class century.
Tail-end runs were often needed, because New Zealand's top order was even worse than England's. Over the series, their first six wickets averaged 147 to England's 149, and Matt Horne was the only specialist batsman to play a decisive innings. His opening partner for the last three Tests, Matthew Bell, finished top of the averages, compensating for his limited palette with unlimited doggedness. Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle each notched up a fiery hundred at Old Trafford, but otherwise struggled on a series of suspect pitches.
Spectators were thin on the ground, thanks to a combination of factors: unglamorous opposition, England's ineptitude, the hangover from the World Cup. Those who stayed at home were well served by Channel 4, who took over the BBC's traditional role of providing TV coverage of home Tests, starting at Lord's (the Edgbaston Test was shown live only via satellite and cable). They poached the best commentators, introduced some lively ideas, and never shrank from exposing England's shortcomings. In the end, though, C4 were probably as surprised at the result as the bookies, who started each Test by making England favourites. To their credit, New Zealand stubbornly refused to follow the script. Their visit was supposed to provide the springboard for England's revival; instead it sent them plunging to new depths.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Derbyshire v New Zealanders at Derby, Jul 28, 1999