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The extraordinary scenes on a sunlit, early September afternoon at The Oval aptly and vividly illustrated the contrasting states of English and West Indian cricket at the start of the 21st century. England had convincingly won the final Test to secure the series 3-1 and regain the Wisden Trophy that had been in West Indies' assured possession for 27 years. As captain Nasser Hussain and his triumphant players stood on the balcony, showering themselves with champagne, their achievement was hailed by thousands of joyful fans below, many of whom had not been born when Ray Illingworth was the last England captain to claim the Trophy on July 1, 1969.
Confident that this last day of the international summer would bring to an end the prolonged and painful period of Caribbean dominance, so many spectators streamed into the ground that the gates had to be closed within half an hour of the first ball, leaving an estimated 5,000 latecomers outside. Lord's, where England had drawn level with an unimaginable victory in the Second Test, and Headingley, where they had gone one up with their first two-day win since 1912, had witnessed similar public outpourings. This was the climax.
It was a stark contrast to events a year earlier. That summer had seen England eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage and beaten in the subsequent Test series by the unfancied New Zealanders. Hussain, new to the captaincy, was booed and heckled from the same Oval outfield that now cheered him. In 1999, The Sun, parodying the Sporting Times' famous notice that in 1882 gave rise to the Ashes, had devoted its entire front page to another mock obituary of English cricket. Now headlines and editorials were gushing in their praise. For a fleeting moment, football, the sporting obsession of the British media, was kicked off the front page. There were a few cautionary voices amid the tumult, but the elation was understandable.
For West Indies, it was the passing of an era in more ways than one. Even as they were folding to inevitable defeat, their 13th in 15 overseas Tests, the Oval crowd - and the England team with their guards of honour - bade a warm and generous farewell to the two survivors from the glory years of the 1980s, the great fast bowlers Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Their team had gone under despite their yeoman efforts and, as Ambrose walked off a Test ground for the last time, 405 wickets to his account (and with Walsh, on 483, declaring that he would soon follow), it was clear such an enduring and successful partnership was unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.
It was obvious, too, that West Indies were in disarray. While England rejoiced, the West Indian players returned home to biting criticism from both their passionate public and former champion players, embarrassed at the loss of their legacy. Sir Viv Richards and Michael Holding, commentators on radio and television throughout the series, railed at the lack of commitment and discipline shown on the field - and reportedly off it. It was all the more painful since West Indies had arrived with expectations raised by victorious home series against Zimbabwe and Pakistan, achieved without Brian Lara and under a brand new regime: captain Jimmy Adams, coach Roger Harper and manager Ricky Skerritt. New young players such as Wavell Hinds, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Reon King had quickly asserted themselves at the highest level. Prospects seemed bright.
The optimism was heightened first by the return of Lara, back after his resignation as captain and self-imposed four-month break from the game, and then by a clinically efficient win in the First Test. Victory by an innings inside three days of Caribbean-like sunshine suggested West Indian supremacy was not diminished. That impression was seemingly confirmed when they claimed a first-innings lead of 133 after tea on the second day of the Second Test.
It should have enabled them to mark the 100th Test at Lord's - and the 50th anniversary of their first victory there - with the triumph that would surely have clinched the series. Instead, complacency and inspired England fast bowling got the better of them and, in a couple of mad, breathtaking hours, before packed stands, West Indies were routed for 54, their lowest total against England. Among those watching in disbelief were five of their countrymen who played in that historic 1950 victory, in London specially for the occasion. It was the turning-point of the series. In spite of typically heroic efforts next day, Ambrose and Walsh could not prevent an astounding England win, a psychological blow from which West Indies did not recover.
They managed only one, last-over victory in the triangular NatWest limited-overs tournament that interrupted the Tests, losing all three matches to Zimbabwe and failing to qualify for the final. It took a masterful century by Lara, their only three-figure innings of the series, to convert a deficit of 146 into a draw in the rain-affected Third Test at Old Trafford, but it was a brief, deceptive revival. Their tour ended in ignominious fashion: the Fourth Test at Headingley brought another disastrous second-innings collapse to 61 all out and their first two-day defeat in almost 70 years; a below-strength Somerset trounced them by 269 runs at Taunton; and, finally, came the inevitable surrender of the Wisden Trophy at The Oval where, at least, they managed to carry the match into a fifth day. Even before The Oval, Harper was acknowledging that his players were "very low" and "just waiting for it to end". His predecessors had said much the same on successive overseas reversals in Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand. Once more the team's fragile spirit, as much as fragile techniques, had buckled, and they were at a loss to know how to turn things round.
Only Walsh and Ambrose came out of the débâcle with their reputations intact. Indeed, Walsh enhanced his by taking 34 wickets, his best in a series in 16 years of international cricket. At the age of 37, he even added a new trick to his repertoire, a bamboozling slower ball that twice accounted for Graham Thorpe. Yet those expected to take their place - King, Franklyn Rose and Nixon McLean - were so disappointing that Ambrose was moved to comment publicly on their lack of support.
The experienced batsmen - Lara, Adams and vice-captain Sherwin Campbell - produced only one significant innings each, and failed to give the expected lead to the younger brigade, of whom none made any real advance, and several seemed rather to regress. Sarwan, who turned 20 in June, did best, though his chance did not come until tendonitis of the rightelbow ended Shivnarine Chanderpaul's tour. As he had on his debut against Pakistan in May, Sarwan displayed both class and temperament, and batted with level-headed, technically correct assurance, while his senior team-mates were being embarrassed by fast, full-length swing bowling. Yet his highest score on tour was his unbeaten 59 at Headingley.
Hinds, the tall, forthright left-hander, could not maintain an encouraging start that included three hundreds against the counties. He could at least claim to have been unlucky: when in his best form, he, more than anyone, was victim of a few dodgy decisions. Chris Gayle failed in West Indies' sole triumph, at Edgbaston, and was promptly replaced as Campbell's opening partner by Adrian Griffith, with limited success. Griffith's eight Test innings included one fifty, when West Indies temporarily found their batting feet in the second innings at Manchester. Among the bowlers, King's control and confidence deserted him and he was replaced at The Oval by leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo, for his first Test. Fast bowler Corey Collymore did not appear in the Tests or one-day internationals. Such was the selectors' disaffection that, two months after the England tour, five were dropped from the winter party to Australia.
England's revival could be attributed to several factors, quite apart from West Indian weakness. It coincided with the recall of Dominic Cork and Craig White, two all-rounders who had been in the Test wilderness for sometime, and the discovery, by default, of the left-handed Marcus Trescothick as a reliable and complementary opening partner for the durable Mike Atherton. The effect of the leadership provided by the partnership of Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, the former Zimbabwe captain who had taken over as coach before the South African tour the previous winter, was also significant. It was, indeed, to Hussain's credit that he never allowed either his own horrid form - 61 runs at an average of 10.16, culminating in a pair at The Oval - or the broken thumb that sidelined him for the Lord's Test to affect his captaincy.
Fletcher's insistence that, for centrally contracted players, England requirements (including enforced rest) should take precedence over county claims met with some resistance, but it was not coincidence that there was barely a pulled muscle or a strained back to send selectors scurrying for replacements. Critically, it allowed continuity: England used 17 players, the fewest for a home series of five or more Tests since 1987, when 16 took on Pakistan. So it was more for reasons of strategy than injury that England, after the heavy loss at Edgbaston, needed to rebuild. Cork and White were summoned, the latter only five weeks after collapsing with a mystery blackout; Michael Vaughan, the dependable young Yorkshire batsman who had slotted easily into Test cricket in South Africa, returned after breaking a finger.
Cork, overtly aggressive, was at the heart of the Lord's victory with ball and bat. He provided telling support for the hostile pace of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick in West Indies' collapse, and withstood the tension of the closing stages to hit a match-winning, unbeaten 33. He had had a similar effect the last time West Indies played Test cricket in England, in his debut series in 1995, and they wondered what had happened to him in the interim. White was a revelation, consistently generating more pace than anyone from a strong body action and creating mayhem with his reverse swing. While Gough, for once strong and fit throughout, and Caddick caused the early damage in the frequent West Indian breakdowns, White and Cork repeatedly exploited the openings. They shared 33 wickets between them, at an average of less than 15; the West Indian second string - King, McLean and Rose - managed only 19 at almost 40.
The bowlers' job was made easier by both pitch and ball favouring fast swing and seam bowling. In five Tests there were just three individual centuries - one each for the most experienced batsmen - while only three of the 16 completed innings stretched beyond 300. The most equitable conditions were at Old Trafford, which Hussain described as "a proper Test match on a proper Test-match pitch". Here Alec Stewart marked his 100th Test with a century of high, attacking quality, and Lara, for the only time in the series, approached his best in scoring 112. It was at Old Trafford, too, that Trescothick made his Test debut. His break had come in the limited-overs series when, as a replacement for the injured Nick Knight, he had shown an unflappable temperament and sound judgment. His arrival also spelled the end of the experiment of opening the innings with Mark Ramprakash. Quite possibly, it spelled the end of Ramprakash's unhappy Test career, too. In Trescothick's first three Tests, facing Walsh and Ambrose on challenging pitches, he averaged 47.50, more than anyone on either side, and shared partnerships of 179 with Stewart and 159 with Atherton. He looked the part. Like Stewart, Atherton also played his 100th Test at Manchester, but all he could muster on his home patch were scores of one and 28. By the final Test, when he was averaging a little over 17 in the series, there was even media speculation he could lose his place. His response was emphatic: 83 and 108 in a match in which Trescothick's 78 was the only other half-century. There were still gaps in the England team, notably the absence of a genuine spin bowler - Robert Croft had been especially ineffectual at Old Trafford - and Hussain warned that there were difficult times ahead on the winter tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Yet it was a time for English cricket to celebrate, just as, for West Indies, so far from their previous lofty standards, it was a time for introspection.
For the ECB, however, the euphoria was tempered by financial reality. The First and Second Tests were over in three days, the Fourth in two, while poor weather limited attendances at the Third. All told, it amounted to a shortfall on estimated revenue of around £2 million, a considerable setback, even offset by the elation of defeating West Indies. It was not a consideration that would have worried those merry fans at The Oval. Their view would have been echoed in the Times editorial that noted: "The passage of time has made the yearned for victory all the sweeter."
Match reports for
Worcestershire v West Indians at Worcester, Jun 2-4, 2000
Tour Match: Glamorgan v West Indians at Cardiff, Jun 6-8, 2000
Tour Match: West Indians v Zimbabweans at Arundel, Jun 10-12, 2000
New Zealand A v West Indians at Chelmsford, Jun 21-24, 2000
Tour Match: Hampshire v West Indians at Southampton, Jun 25, 2000
Tour Match: New Zealand A v West Indians at Bristol, Jul 4, 2000
Tour Match: Yorkshire v West Indians at Leeds, Jul 24-25, 2000
Tour Match: Leicestershire v West Indians at Leicester, Jul 28-30, 2000
Tour Match: Derbyshire v West Indians at Derby, Aug 9-11, 2000
Tour Match: Scotland v West Indians at Uddingston, Aug 13, 2000
Tour Match: Somerset v West Indians at Taunton, Aug 23-26, 2000
Tour Match: Sir Paul Getty's Invitation XII v West Indians at Wormsley, Aug 28, 2000