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Few tours that finish with the captain holding aloft a trophy at Lord's are regarded as a let-down. This one was. New Zealand arrived in England with what looked suspiciously like a swagger after just two defeats in 13 Tests. Six weeks later, they were reeling from a 3-0 drubbing. Victory in the oneday triangular provided a glossy postscript, but it was like finding a penny after losing a fiver and New Zealand returned home feeling distinctly shortchanged.
In advance, the Test series had the makings of a mini-classic. England were buzzing with expectation after their historic triumph in the Caribbean. But New Zealand had a point to prove, having long believed their 2-1 win in England in 1999 had never been given the credit it deserved. This time, the squad was older and wiser; Chris Cairns, playing his final Test series before concentrating exclusively on one-day internationals, reckoned it was the best ever to leave New Zealand. And at the helm stood a formidable pair: Stephen Fleming was widely hailed as Test cricket's canniest leader in the post-Steve Waugh era, while the coach, John Bracewell, had helped crown Gloucestershire one-day kings of the county circuit. A perceived wrong was set to be righted.
By the time England had chased down 284 at Trent Bridge to seal their first whitewash in a series of three or more Tests since 1978 - also against New Zealand - indignation had given way to frustration. An injury list of freakish proportions had reduced the bowling attack to a skeleton service, and awkward questions were being asked of the management. The decision to include six non-playing members in an initial party of 20 came under criticism, especially when Daniel Vettori tore a hamstring at Headingley to expose a complete lack of spin back-up. Meanwhile, rumours that Fleming and Bracewell were locked in a power struggle were strong enough to persuade Martin Snedden, the chief executive of New Zealand Cricket, to bring forward a trip to England to investigate for himself. Talk of infighting was played down, and Snedden emerged with a straightforward - but less comfortable - explanation for defeat. England, he ventured with refreshing candour, had simply been the better team. Bracewell's suggestion that the pitches had been prepared to suit the home side's taller, faster bowlers was exposed for what it was: a spurious piece of self-justification.
For Fleming, the result was the most bitter disappointment of his sevenyear reign as captain. His only previous whitewash had occurred in 1999- 2000 against Australia, who were in the middle of a world-record run of 16 Test wins at the time. This was far worse. For much of the series, he cut a forlorn figure, quietly seething at slip, arms folded, while his bowlers suffered stage fright or injuries or both. If looks could kill, Fleming would have been charged with mass murder.
The biggest blow was the realisation that Shane Bond, the only New Zealander capable of rattling the speedometer more ferociously than England's quicks, would not be fit for any of the Tests after a long lay-off because of a stress fracture of the back. But Bond's absence was merely the tip of an iceberg that would have sunk more buoyant sides than this. A combination of side strains, broken digits and pulled hamstrings meant that at various stages of the tour Jacob Oram, Craig McMillan, Michael Papps, Vettori, Chris Martin and Kyle Mills either were unable to perform to their full potential or missed Tests altogether. During the Second Test, New Zealand used five substitute fielders, but the nadir came in Nottingham, where Martin, who vied with Daryl Tuffey for the title of flop of the series, and the debutant Mills managed less than eight overs between them before breaking down. The situation recalled the Bangalore Test of 1988-89, when TV journalist Ken Nicholson and commentator Jeremy Coney had to be summoned to field after much of the squad was taken ill. "Everyone's a bit pissed off, really," was the succinct summation of opener Mark Richardson. In the event, England's greater cohesion, firepower and self-belief meant they kept on winning the crucial sessions, and the three Tests followed an eerily similar pattern. Each time, New Zealand built up a position of strength, only to relinquish the advantage on the fourth day. A lack of penetration, stemming in part from an inability to find reverse swing, was one problem. But an inconsistent middle order was just as damaging: between them, New Zealand's third and fourth wickets totalled 117 runs in 12 attempts.
The top order, by contrast, was solidity itself. Richardson cemented his reputation as Test cricket's sticker nonpareil, batting and battling for a total of seven minutes short of 22 hours and scoring 369 runs, more than anyone else on either side. Fleming's productivity improved later in the series, and on average New Zealand lost their second wicket at an imposing 158. Faced with potentially huge first-innings totals, England sides of the past might have wilted. But this one possessed Steve Harmison. After taking 23 wickets against West Indies, Harmison continued his rise up the world rankings by claiming a further 21 - nine more than the series' next-best, Cairns. Fleming likened his explosiveness to that of Brett Lee, but his consistency and miserliness - to say nothing of his gangling limbs and towering reach - confirmed what many observers had felt in the Caribbean: here was England's answer to Curtly Ambrose. He was tireless, too, and in three Tests sent down 169.2 overs, a country mile ahead of anyone else. "Harmison is outstanding," said Bracewell. "He has found international length... that middle length where as a batsman you don't know whether to go forward or back."
England's batting moved in one direction only, even if it took a bizarre injury to Michael Vaughan to harness its full potential. Three days before the start of the First Test at Lord's, Vaughan twisted his right knee in the nets. The captaincy passed - not without media misgivings - to Marcus Trescothick, and Vaughan's opening slot to Middlesex captain Andrew Strauss, who proceeded to hit 112 and 83 on a staggeringly assured debut. Nasser Hussain was so impressed that he made his mind up on the Sunday of that Test to retire, then bade farewell in style, with an emotional match-winning century. When he was gone, his old friend Graham Thorpe took over, easing England to victory at Trent Bridge with a masterful hundred, full of nurdles and wisdom. More than that, England discovered their best counter-attacking lower-middle-order partnership since Tony Greig and Alan Knott. At Lord's, Geraint Jones, more at home with the bat than with the gloves, helped Andrew Flintoff add 105 in 19 overs; at Headingley they put on 118 in 29. With Ashley Giles chipping in to make 81 unbeaten runs in the Third Test, England's batting order finally had some backbone.
The new-found resilience meant that the memories of 1999 and 2001-02, when New Zealand twice fought back from 1-0 deficits, evaporated in the Nottingham sunshine. England had won six Tests out of seven and had been bowled out twice in only one of their last 13, at Colombo. Once he had recovered from injury, Vaughan's leadership - unruffled, sympathetic, authoritative - went from strength to strength.
While England celebrated their rebirth as a Test nation and excitedly, not to say inevitably, began the countdown to the 2005 Ashes, New Zealand embarked on the one-day leg of their tour. Things got worse before they got better. Defeat by lowly Derbyshire in a warm-up match provoked a heartfelt team meeting in which Gilbert Enoka, a sports psychologist who had worked extensively with the All Blacks, forced the players to undergo an uneasy bout of self-examination. That seemed to do the trick. They did not lose another game, a run which culminated in a crushing win over West Indies in what was, surprisingly, New Zealand's first one-day international at Lord's. But behind the smiles lay a profound feeling of regret, and the words of Fleming after the chance of a Test series win had disappeared at Headingley best summed up the tour. "The penetration we had with the ball was pretty nil," he said through gritted teeth. Ultimately, it was a tour of missed opportunities.
Match reports for
British Universities v New Zealanders at Cambridge, May 3-5, 2004
Worcestershire v New Zealanders at Worcester, May 7-10, 2004
Kent v New Zealanders at Canterbury, May 13-16, 2004
Leicestershire v New Zealanders at Leicester, May 28-31, 2004
Derbyshire v New Zealanders at Derby, Jun 16, 2004
Essex v New Zealanders at Chelmsford, Jun 18, 2004
Northamptonshire v New Zealanders at Northampton, Jun 20, 2004