The England Team in 2003

Good Housekeeping

Scyld Berry

In 2003, England's cricket was a neat semi-detached house. One or two other countries could boast grander structures with more inspiring façades, but anyone who could remember England's cricket - often dilapidated and shambolic - over the previous couple of decades would not have complained. It was well-kept, middle-of-the-range, and inhabited by manifestly decent and thoughtful people.

The tidiness of the frontage disguised the fact that a change of tenant took place in mid-year. It had been Nasser Hussain's house but in two separate stages Michael Vaughan took over as one-day and Test captain. It says much for the good sense of those concerned that the household rapidly settled down again. But above all, it was thanks to the steady hand of the housekeeper or - if the image would suit Duncan Fletcher better - the janitor, who ensured continuity. The neighbours' curtains twitched as they looked for signs of rows and disruption, but the appearance of stability remained.

Hussain, 35 just after the tournament ended, had long intended to resign as England's one-day captain after the World Cup, and when a day's rain in Bulawayo meant that England were knocked out, this passionate man (a thousand miles away in Port Elizabeth at the time) saw no reason to alter his mind. One-day cricket had never been his forte, hence his prickliness on the subject of whether he should bat at No. 3. He was also drained by the furore over Zimbabwe when the discussions, about whether England should play their qualifying match in Harare or not, went to the eleventh hour and beyond. But Hussain intended to carry on as Test captain, he said, until such time as the new one-day captain had got his feet under the table.

This scheme, however, did not quite work out as planned. England's first assignment was the two-Test series at home to Zimbabwe: this turned out to be a formality, as the tourists had probably the weakest batting side that any Test country has brought to England, which made no sort of trial of the transitional arrangements. Rather unexpectedly, England then won - under their new one-day captain Vaughan - both the NatWest Challenge against Pakistan 2-1, and the three-way NatWest Series. As this involved, after an initial loss to Zimbabwe, three victories in four internationals against South Africa, the achievement was rightly hailed as speedy rebuilding after the World Cup. Nick Knight, Andrew Caddick, Alec Stewart and Hussain himself had all gone, but able replacements were immediately slotted in.

So when England's Test team regrouped for the first of the five Test matches against South Africa, the dynamics had changed more rapidly than anyone had suspected. Hussain had been away for the month of one-day cricket in midsummer. When he returned, he found that everyone was managing fairly well without him. A selfish captain - which is how some still characterised Hussain, based on knowledge of his youth rather than his cricketing maturity - would have carried on. England bowled poorly in the First Test at Edgbaston, but on a flat pitch that was nothing new, and another big hundred from Vaughan's bat saw them through to a draw. Hussain had taken over almost exactly four years before, only to end his first Test series - just before Fletcher took over as coach - by losing to New Zealand 2-1 and being booed on the Oval balcony. Nothing would have been easier, or more tempting, than for Hussain to have stayed on for the rest of the series against South Africa, hoping for his team to spark again so that he could retire as England's Test captain on a far more triumphant note at The Oval.

Hussain did not take that easy option. Spurred on by the media who wanted to see a new face as captain if only for the sake of change, he asked Vaughan on the last day at Edgbaston if he was ready to take over as Test captain as well, without his form being affected. When Vaughan said yes, Hussain went to the chairman of selectors David Graveney. Hussain had noticed that his team had moved on; he could not revert to his barking, hectoring style of keeping everyone up to the mark after Vaughan had introduced his quieter, more consensual style which expected every player to do his duty without being told. The Hussain-Fletcher combination had worked so well for England because they were complementary, the one passionate, the other more measured. Now captain and coach were more of a kind. But, after a heavy defeat by South Africa the following week at Lord's, redeemed only by Andrew Flintoff 's hitting, this chemistry also showed signs of working.

The series-levelling victory at Trent Bridge owed a great deal to winning the toss on a pitch that broke up, but England still had to pull together. The first-innings hundreds by Hussain and Mark Butcher were vital in initiating the new era: after a polite but no more than warm reception at Lord's following his resignation, the Nottingham crowd greeted Hussain's century with the popular acclamation that was his due for being England's best captain in the post-Brearley era. It matched the applause for Alec Stewart's hundred at Old Trafford against West Indies in 2000, and for Mike Atherton's at The Oval the same season. They were all heartfelt displays of public gratitude for former England captains who have done their best in circumstances that have not always been favourable.

The change in leadership could not disguise the fact that some things about the modern England team remain the same no matter who the captain is: firstly, the absence of an attacking spinner; secondly, the lack of a matchwinning fast bowler (although Darren Gough and Caddick as a pair were as good as one); and, thirdly, the unending succession of injuries to the fast bowlers they do have. This was the first year that England had a full-time medical officer, Dr Peter Gregory, but the differences were not readily apparent. It was still utterly predictable that whatever pace attack England picked for one Test, the same bowlers would not be in a fit state for the following match. The disruption can hardly be overestimated. Yet the coach, and captain, continued to minimise the impact - except in the Headingley Test, where for the second successive season England's seam attack bowled their worst in the most helpful conditions.

It was typical that Caddick should have been announced as unfit a week ahead of the series against Zimbabwe in May; and that a simple leg injury should involve so many complications that he was out for the rest of the year. More understandably, Simon Jones spent the whole year recovering from the torn cruciates in his right knee. Gough gave up trying to get his right knee fit for Test cricket again and, after the Lord's Test against South Africa, announced he was going to concentrate on one-day internationals. Richard Johnson made an encouraging six-wicket debut against Zimbabwe in the inaugural Test at Chester-le-Street - and duly missed the South African series. There was never any danger that James Anderson, the one-day discovery of the winter, would have to wait for his Test debut, and he managed the complete series against South Africa before he - and Flintoff - missed the series in Bangladesh. There in the autumn Vaughan stamped his mark on the new era by forcing England's fitness levels up to their highest yet, but it did not stop the fast bowlers falling over like flies.

Some more fortunate constants applied too. One was the stability of the top-order batting. Vaughan, Butcher and Marcus Trescothick all had productive years, as indeed did Hussain. In his first four Tests as captain, Vaughan kept getting out after playing himself in, perhaps going too hard at the ball with the intent to show who was boss. A brilliant attacking innings of 81 not out to see England home on a turning pitch at Dhaka took him over that psychological hurdle; and an Athertonian innings of 105 saved the Second Test against Sri Lanka in Kandy. His captaincy, essentially conventional and defensive, became more inventive with regard to field placings in Sri Lanka; and he never asked too much of his bowlers, as Hussain occasionally did when setting 8-1 fields.

Trescothick, and the whole England team, saved their best for the Oval Test against South Africa. In the ongoing absence of any match-winning bowler, the team turned on a collective effort that was nothing short of magnificent. It was Stewart's final game for England, and two of his oldest Surrey colleagues - Graham Thorpe and Martin Bicknell - made sure that he went out on a triumphant note. Nothing seemed less likely after a dazzling hundred by Herschelle Gibbs on the opening day, but inch by inch England clawed their way back. Bicknell supplied old-fashioned line and length; Trescothick and Thorpe constructed a substantial cake, then Flintoff sprayed icing everywhere to put England on top. Steve Harmison at long last translated his promise into performance by taking four for 33 on a still true pitch, before England knocked off the runs in style. The victory had to rank alongside the ones over West Indies in 1991 and 2000 as the best England have achieved at The Oval outside Ashes series.

John Crawley, Robert Key and Ed Smith were tried as fifth batsman during the year but none came near to filling the position in the way that Thorpe did. He had been more often out than in the England side since his back injury in mid-1998; he had not had the best of summers with Surrey. But his private life was apparently less turbulent at last, and his cricketing revival gave England's batting a formidable look. However, even Thorpe was unable to repeat his previous success in Sri Lanka: Muttiah Muralitharan's new legbreak saw to that.

Flintoff was declared England's Man of the Series against South Africa, and there was considerable evidence to suggest that the prodigy was settling down. By the end of the year, though, the jury was still out on the question of whether he was just a No. 7 hitter or had the capacity - above all the nous - to turn himself into a No. 6 batsman. The South African attack, almost entirely fast-medium, was too one-dimensional to prove anything one way or the other. The most encouraging sign came in the final Test of the year at Colombo when, after some unintelligent back-foot prodding mixed with aimless swiping in the two previous games, Flintoff buckled down to bat against the Sri Lankan spinners, working the ball around yet occasionally calling on his massive strength.

Flintoff was also England's most accurate and economical bowler, and often the fastest too, as he banged the ball in short of a length. With a little more artfulness, he would have cashed in on all the balls that forced the batsman into back-foot defence by pitching the odd one up, but he himself admitted that he was a slow learner. The possibilities were evident when out of nowhere, on the flattest of pitches in Kandy, he dismissed a well-set Tillekeratne Dilshan with a rip-snorting bouncer that seamed in sharply and gloved the batsman. Not since Gough in his prime had England possessed a bowler who could make something happen in those conditions.

For the rest of the bowling, Fletcher's plan was for Anderson, Harmison and Jones to take the field together, with Flintoff in support. The England pace attack would then have everything: the both-ways swing of Anderson, the bounce of Harmison and the speed of Jones. Such a house might be des-res indeed.

Unfortunately, the back garden was messier than the building: the behindthe- scenes arrangements were not nearly so neat and orderly. The chaotic mass of committees was simplified to the extent that Fletcher reported to the ECB No. 2, John Carr, but the chain of command and responsibility other than that was as obscure as ever.

Scyld Berry is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.

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