Tests: New Zealand 0 England 2, ODIs: New Zealand 2 England 2

England in Zimbabwe and New Zealand, 1996-97

David Lloyd (Evening Standard)

After four barren winters, England at last came home in something close to triumph when they convincingly won their Test series in New Zealand. Victories in Wellington and Christchurch enabled them to quieten their critics, and end - for a few months, anyway - speculation about the continuation of Mike Atherton's captaincy.

Beating a weak New Zealand team did not necessarily seem like preparation for victory over all-conquering Australia, but it was possible to discern rays of hope, both in the team's overall approach and in individual performances.

It had been a long time coming, though. The English winter began gloomily in Zimbabwe, where the visitors could do no better than draw both Tests, and lost all three one-day internationals rather humiliatingly. Worse still, by the time they left Harare for Auckland in early January, few Zimbabweans were sorry to see the back of the England party. They had accomplished the rare double of failing to win a single match of significance while adopting an approach widely regarded as unfriendly, aloof and, thanks to one crass comment from coach David Lloyd, downright rude. It was hard to think how England could have made a bigger mess of their first senior tour to cricket's ninth and newest Test country.

Form, both on and off the field, improved considerably in New Zealand. There is little doubt that lectures delivered in Harare by Lord MacLaurin, the new ECB chairman, played a part. Like most good employers, Lord MacLaurin criticized behind closed doors and praised in public - but it was clear he had not come to Zimbabwe armed with Christmas presents. And there was no attempt to conceal his delight when he next caught up with England, during their Wellington Test victory. "I'm very proud of them," he said.

It was that sort of campaign. . . a real mixed bag right to the end, when Atherton's squad squandered a 2-0 lead in the one-day international series with New Zealand and had to share those particular spoils. They could have won both Tests in Zimbabwe, but managed neither, and should have whitewashed New Zealand 3-0, but failed to take the one last wicket needed on a frustrating final afternoon at Auckland. Overall, though, results fairly reflected England's seesawing performances.

To claim that they underestimated Zimbabwe is to invite argument from the tour management. The facts, however, support the prosecution. England, having already decided 15 players (rather than the usual 16) would be sufficient, declined to replace Dominic Cork, the Derbyshire bowler, when he withdrew from stage one to sort out his troubled personal life. Only four days were set aside to acclimatise to conditions, including the problems created by altitude, before the first match in Zimbabwe. And this was in late November, when most members of the squad had neither bowled nor batted for two months, net practice having been omitted at a training camp in Portugal. Zimbabwe were surprised and somewhat offended by England's apparently cavalier approach. They had gained Test status in 1992 despite English opposition. England had not rushed to play them, so they were more than normally pleased to ambush them.

England were thrashed in two early preparatory games, by the President's XI and Mashonaland, and suddenly began to find that their squad was on the thin side. Atherton, initially handicapped by his chronic back problem, and Graham Thorpe both lost form completely. The management had decided Alec Stewart would be first-choice wicket-keeper, which meant Jack Russell was sent into internal exile; and neither Ronnie Irani nor Andy Caddick was pushing hard for inclusion.

Before long, Craig White was summoned from a holiday in Australia, following his successful A tour, and played a Test within 72 hours of landing in Harare. By that stage, the First Test, in Bulawayo, had been drawn (famously so, with scores level) and coach Lloyd was just about the most unpopular man in Zimbabwe. He told anyone who would listen, and a fair number of locals who did not want to, that "we flippin' murdered them", a claim based on England's almost successful fourth-innings run-chase and Zimbabwe's defensive tactics during the final afternoon, which included far-flung fields and deliberately negative bowling, both sides of the stumps. In an ideal world the umpires would have bee stricter in their interpretation of wides. Then again, in an ideal world England's attack would not have squandered the new ball on the opening day. At least Zimbabwe's bowlers were landing the ball roughly where they intended and, if deliveries are not deemed wide in the first hour of a match, then those equally off line during the last should not be penalised, either.

England spent a dreary Christmas minus their families (another poor decision by the tour planners, unlikely to be repeated), but were set to finish the stronger side in the Second Test before rain washed out the final day. Another moral victory? Maybe. But does any Test team dismissed for 156 in its first innings deserve too much sympathy? Nothing but condemnation followed England's performances during the last two one-day internationals: one they lost from a position of power, the other ended in a rout after an inspired spell of swing bowling from Eddo Brandes, who claimed a hat-trick. Zimbabwe celebrated while England were more than happy to say their goodbyes, having underperformed as a unit throughout and failed in their wider obligations as cricketing tourists. "Lord MacLaurin and I were horrified by what we saw in Zimbabwe," ECB chief executive Tim Lamb confirmed later. "We were not happy with the way the England team presented themselves. Their demeanour was fairly negative and not particularly attractive."

There were some individual successes to build on. While Zimbabwe's impressive leg-spinner, Paul Strang, would have topped most polls for the outstanding performer of the series, England had their candidates. Stewart, given the wicket-keeping gloves full time and guaranteed a No. 3 batting spot, proved thoroughly reliable behind the stumps and top-quality in front of them. It was deeply satisfying for a man whose international career had been written off a few months earlier. John Crawley batted with great discipline at No. 6, fast bowler Darren Gough looked almost back to his best after two tough years and spinners Robert Croft and Phil Tufnell quickly developed into a useful double act.

No one, on the other hand, looked more out of sorts in Zimbabwe than Atherton: he managed just 196 runs from 13 innings in all cricket. That return, combined with his team's lack of success, prompted an English journalist to ask at the opening press conference in New Zealand: "When are you going to do the decent thing and resign?" He perhaps reached his nadir on the day he was caught by Emily Drumm of the New Zealand women's team in a benefit match. He was unable even to pretend that he saw the funny side. There is little doubt Atherton would have quit had England's fortunes not improved. Instead, after further personal flops in two warm-up matches, a lengthy session with a bowling machine at Hamilton somehow freed the captain's feet from concrete. Atherton was confident enough to predict a century for himself before the First Test in Auckland. He failed, but by a mere 17 runs, and his return to form was the final piece in the jigsaw. From the moment they landed in New Zealand, England looked happier in conditions which, on and off the field, were much more like home and, although still capable of very bad sessions, generally dominated a three-Test series against disappointing opponents. The best contest by far was the last, at Christchurch, where all four results were possible for most of a riveting final day. England won, clinching the rubber 2-0, Atherton became a hero again, through his masterly innings of 94 not out and 118, and the captain axed when the tour ended was New Zealand's Lee Germon.

Thorpe had rescued his winter with back-to-back centuries at Auckland and Wellington, emulating Stewart, who hit successive hundreds at Harare and Auckland. Atherton finished the combined tours with an average of 51 from five Tests. Among the bowlers, Gough and Croft remained the outstanding performers - helped, it must said, by the splendid close catching of Nick Knight and Nasser Hussain.

David Lloyd's reputation as coach was also enhanced by the end. There was no doubting Lloyd's passion for the job, nor his popularity with the players. It was perhaps a pity he did not have a more forceful character than John Barclay to keep him and his emotions in check when tensions were running high. Barclay, having been upgraded to tour manager after serving as Ray Illingworth's assistant the previous winter, showed few signs of managing decisively when it really mattered, particularly in Zimbabwe.

At least Lloyd and Barclay had proper jobs. With Lloyd running the nets, physiotherapist Wayne Morton never far from the action during some increasingly impressive fielding drills and fitness specialist Dean Riddle working on the players' speed and stamina, there often seemed little left for assistant coach Emburey to tackle.

Overall, England finished the winter with something to build upon: time would tell whether the foundations were strong enough to withstand the gale due to blow in from Australia.

ENGLAND TOURING PARTY

M. A. Atherton (Lancashire) (captain), N. Hussain (Essex) (vice-captain), A. R. Caddick (Somerset), D. G. Cork (Derbyshire), J. P. Crawley (Lancashire), R. D. B. Croft (Glamorgan), D. Gough (Yorkshire), R. C. Irani (Essex), N. V. Knight (Warwickshire), A. D. Mullally (Leicestershire), R. C. Russell (Gloucestershire), C. E. W. Silverwood (Yorkshire), A. J. Stewart (Surrey), G. P. Thorpe (Surrey), P. C. R. Tufnell (Middlesex).

Cork did not join the tour until New Zealand. C. White (Yorkshire) joined the party in Zimbabwe after England A's tour of Australia.

Tour manager: J. R. T. Barclay. Coach: D. Lloyd. Assistant coach: J. E. Emburey (Northants). Scorer: M. N. Ashton. Physiotherapist: W. P. Morton (Yorkshire). Fitness consultant: D. Riddle.


ENGLAND TOUR RESULTS

Test matches - Played 5: Won 2, Drawn 3.

First-class matches - Played 10: Won 5, Lost 2, Drawn 3.

Wins - New Zealand (2), Matabeleland, New Zealand Selection XI, Northern Districts.


Match reports for

1st Test: New Zealand v England at Auckland, Jan 24-28, 1997
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2nd Test: New Zealand v England at Wellington, Feb 6-10, 1997
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3rd Test: New Zealand v England at Christchurch, Feb 14-18, 1997
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1st ODI: New Zealand v England at Christchurch, Feb 20, 1997
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2nd ODI: New Zealand v England at Auckland, Feb 23, 1997
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3rd ODI: New Zealand v England at Napier, Feb 26, 1997
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4th ODI: New Zealand v England at Auckland, Mar 2, 1997
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5th ODI: New Zealand v England at Wellington, Mar 4, 1997
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Match reports for

1st ODI: Zimbabwe v England at Bulawayo, Dec 15, 1996
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1st Test: Zimbabwe v England at Bulawayo, Dec 18-22, 1996
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2nd Test: Zimbabwe v England at Harare, Dec 26-30, 1996
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2nd ODI: Zimbabwe v England at Harare, Jan 1, 1997
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3rd ODI: Zimbabwe v England at Harare, Jan 3, 1997
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