England were under no illusions about the challenge they faced on an intensive 11-week tour of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Perhaps they should have been. That way the players might have retained the mental reserves to survive a cruelly conceived itinerary, and been allowed the freedom of expression to conquer a pair of utterly polarised opponents.
Against Bangladesh, a team that had lost 23 of their 24 Tests, England were such cast-iron favourites that the slightest slip-up invited ridicule. In Sri Lanka, however, they were competing not only against formidable opposition, but also with the legacy of their astonishing series victory in 2000-01 - arguably England's best performance of the past decade. If that were not enough, another England team 5,000 miles away were adding to the pressure by stealing every available plaudit in winning the rugby World Cup in Australia.
As a consequence, the team were dogged by the fear of failure. For ten gruelling weeks they ploughed a lonely and unspectacular furrow, but were nonetheless beginning to tick off their winter's objectives. At the 11th hour, however, their resolve snapped, and in the defining Test in Colombo they tumbled to defeat by an innings and 215 runs. It was England's third-worst beating ever; after that, it was almost impossible to haul any positives out of the wreckage.
The difference between the sides was simple. For the first time since his 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998, Muttiah Muralitharan was fit and ready to face England on his own terms. The groin and shoulder injuries that had hindered his mobility in 2000-01 and 2002 were gone, and instead he introduced a wickedly illegible ball known as the "doosra" that spat back into the left-hander and made England's pad-dominated tactics fraught with danger. At the age of 31, and with 459 Test wickets to his name already, Murali had become the most complete bowler in world cricket.
The doosra - meaning "second" or "the other one" in Hindi and Urdu - is the off-spinner's leg-break, first introduced by Pakistan's Saqlain Mushtaq in the mid-1990s, but not yet seriously mastered by any non-subcontinental bowler. This new weapon had England in a quandary, and drove a timid squad so deep into their shells that they lost the power to reply. In particular, Murali established a stranglehold over his former nemesis Graham Thorpe, who he dismissed five times out of six to attacking and defensive strokes alike. As Thorpe demonstrated in Colombo, where he was stumped like a novice as he charged down the track, taking on Murali was like trying to tweak a cobra's tail. It was all very well to think positively about doing so, but putting those thoughts into practice required the sort of confidence that bordered on insanity.
One man did attempt to take Murali on - but not with the bat. When Nasser Hussain, who appeared frustrated in his new role of elder statesman, allegedly chose the midpoint of the Kandy Test to cast aspersions about Murali's action, his remarks were tossed to the media and turned into frontpage headlines. The England team muttered darkly that comments made on the field should remain on the field, but Murali won that particular propaganda battle hands down. Even an apparent weakness had been converted into a strength. The Barmy Army made their feelings known with their song to the tune of "Row, Row, Row your Boat":
Throw, throw, throw the ball
Gently down the seam.
Murali, Murali, Murali, Murali
Chucks it like a dream.
Other than that, England had nothing in their armoury with which to retaliate. Their own No. 1 spinner, Ashley Giles, provided the success story of the Sri Lanka tour, clinging to Murali's coat-tails and picking up 18 wickets to atone for a miserable Bangladesh series, but with Darren Gough retired and Andrew Caddick in plaster, the lack of firepower was all too apparent. The one man who had the pace to make a difference was Steve Harmison. But after terrorising the Bangladeshis on a dead pitch in Dhaka, he limped out of the series with a back strain, and was not invited back amid murmurings about his attitude.
In Harmison's absence, England got through their seamers like disposable nappies. In all, four different new-ball partnerships were used in the five Tests - the only pairing to feature in consecutive matches was that of Richard Johnson, who grabbed nine wickets at Chittagong, and Matthew Hoggard, who was named England's Man of the Series in Bangladesh, presumably for lasting the distance. But after one more ineffectual outing at Galle, England purged their front line entirely. For Kandy, they promoted Andrew Flintoff from first-change and James Kirtley from nowhere; at Colombo, James Anderson completed the merry-go-round, having recovered from a twisted ankle - an injury sustained playing against Kirtley on the squash court.
This slash-and-burn selection policy was partly in response to a brutal itinerary. Cramming the three most important Tests into the final 21 days of the tour was as cruel to the players, and their prospects of glory, as it was kind to the families who would have their loved ones home for Christmas. England managed to pull off back-to-back heroics in saving the first two Tests, with Michael Vaughan leading the way at Kandy with a seven-anda- half-hour century, his first as captain. But, as he admitted shortly after the Colombo surrender, his team had been on the ropes all series and simply could not withstand any more punches.
John Dyson, Sri Lanka's Australian coach, was unsympathetic. He suggested after the Kandy draw that England's tactics were 20 years out of date, and that any other side would have thrown some punches of their own. Initially, the timing of his comments seemed absurd - all accusations of negativity were being directed at Dyson's own captain, Hashan Tillekeratne, whose field placings in the closing stages of the game had been extraordinarily defensive. Five days after the match, £7,000 worth of rupees were discovered in a hotel room that had been used by Marvan Atapattu. Though the ICC's anti-corruption unit found no evidence of wrongdoing on Atapattu's part, cricket's experiences over the past ten years inevitably make such incidents alarming.
By the end of the Third Test, however, such suspicions had been put to one side and Dyson had been proved right. England allowed the euphoria of their escapes to cloud their judgment, and dared to believe that the series was in their grasp. At Colombo, Vaughan even won his first toss of the series, and with it a rare opportunity to dictate the pace of the game. But as they shuffled out of their foxholes to engage in open warfare, England's inadequacies were laid bare.
The manner of England's capitulation was particularly unfortunate, given the tactics they had been advocating all tour. Three years earlier, under the attritional, emotional leadership of Hussain, they had scrapped for every inch of every session, and never veered from their course until the job was fully completed. "Stay in the game at all costs," had been Hussain's mantra. It became Vaughan's as well - partly because it had been so successful, partly because he had finished a confusing summer none the wiser as to what type of leader he wanted to be. But it was an out-of-character approach for a man who had used his feet, as well as his head, to carry the fight to Australia the previous winter. By the end of that final Test, it seemed that Hussain's war of attrition had been interpreted as a siege mentality.
In hindsight, England probably expended too much energy in the early weeks of the tour, much of it fretting over the Bangladeshi challenge. But the lessons learned on their horror tour to Zimbabwe seven years earlier - the last time they had travelled as such overwhelming favourites - meant they had no choice but to train like Trojans and perform with the utmost professionalism throughout. Three years earlier, England had turned down the chance to play in Bangladesh's inaugural Test. Now they were pitched against an improving side that had just run Pakistan unspeakably close in a Test in Multan and, under the astute guidance of Dav Whatmore, were looking for all the world like an embarrassment waiting to happen. Until the arrival of Flintoff for the one-day series, caution dogged England's every move. They were outplayed on two of the five days of the Dhaka Test and, though they won comfortably at Chittagong, they were shaken by two dramatic first-innings collapses.
If England had been apprehensive about what mysteries awaited them in Bangladesh, then their first impressions merely added to that sense of foreboding. They arrived in the midst of a spectacular downpour that barely let up for the first week and, with every practice pitch in Dhaka under water, were reduced to commuting north for one and a quarter hours every day, to the Bangladesh Institute of Sport and its four lanes of indoor nets - the only such facility in the whole country.
But the rains relented as suddenly as they had arrived and, after England has splashed through two drawn warm-up games, the inaugural Test stuttered into life amid the Dhaka puddles. At this early stage of the tour, England's seamers looked like browbeaten world-beaters - Hoggard and Harmison sweated buckets in the humid conditions, but shared 16 wickets at Dhaka to ease the pain. However the spinners were a constant source of worry, and were even denounced as "very much ordinary" by Nafis Iqbal, the captain of the Bangladeshi Under-19s, after he had eased to a century in the second practice match.
Giles, who had gambled on a complete deconstruction of his bowling action, was struggling for balance in his new, straighter run-up, and tottered to a series haul of one for 112. His partner Batty just about kept his head above water, metaphorically in Bangladesh, and literally in Sri Lanka, where he came close to drowning in a surfing accident near Galle. But by the end of the tour, Giles and Batty were attracting more attention for their batting, in particular their match-saving performances at Galle and Kandy. Robert Croft had been hustled back into the squad as back-up for the Sri Lanka leg, but Batty's batting kept him at bay and he retired from international cricket for a second time after Christmas.
The rains pursued England to Sri Lanka as well, though not - unfortunately for them - as far north as Dambulla, the venue of the only one-day match to survive an extended monsoon. Fresh from a 3-0 victory over the Bangladeshis, England were bundled out for 88, their lowest total overseas, and battered by ten wickets inside 14 overs. Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Cricket officials looked on from the stands, panicking that their newly installed floodlights would not even be required. Among them was the board president, Thilanga Sumathipala, who was subsequently arrested on fraud charges. Local press speculation about the affair cast another odd shadow over the entire series.
England were denied the chance to come back when the following two one-day matches were washed out without a ball being bowled, so the squad settled down in the team hotel to watch the rugby World Cup final. Patriotic delight about the result must have been accompanied by a certain wistfulness.
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Cricket President's XI v England XI at Moratuwa, Nov 15, 2003
Sri Lanka Cricket President's XI v England XI at Colombo (CCC), Nov 26-28, 2003
Match reports for
Tour Match: Bangladesh Cricket Board President's XI v England XI at Dhaka, Oct 12-14, 2003
Tour Match: Bangladesh A v England XI at Savar, Oct 16-18, 2003