1999 August 27, 2011

When Nasser was booed at The Oval

They might be the world No. 1 at the moment, but exactly 12 years ago a defeat at The Oval left England at the bottom of the table

Last Monday, English cricket reached a pinnacle not seen for decades, when Andrew Strauss was presented with the ICC mace - amusingly and accurately described by Mike Atherton as resembling a giant golden cotton bud - in front of a buoyant capacity crowd at The Oval.

Twelve years earlier to the day, on the same ground, the scene, and the public mood, had been quite different, and the recently appointed England captain Nasser Hussain had been booed by the crowd following an ignominious series defeat by New Zealand. That loss meant England swapped places with them and became the bottom-ranked Test side in the world.

For England the summer of 1999 was an unmitigated disaster. Even before the World Cup, which was being played in England for the first time in 16 years, the players had become embroiled in a tawdry and ill-timed row over money. In the event itself, they finished fourth in their group and lost out on a Super Six spot to Zimbabwe on net run rate. As a result of the early exit, Alec Stewart was sacked as captain and replaced by Hussain.

The muddled thinking continued with the appointment of Duncan Fletcher as coach, but not until the end of the season as he was still under contract at Glamorgan, leaving the national team in limbo. Behind the scenes there was an exodus of the support staff, with two selectors, the physio, the fitness coach and the press officer all bowing out as the summer went on.

Despite being bowled out for 126 in their first innings, England won the opening game of the four-Test series against New Zealand, before losing heavily at Lord's and then being reprieved by rain after conceding a 297-run first-innings lead at Old Trafford. Attendances were poor, and at Manchester, England had been booed off on the Saturday night.

Hussain, who missed that Test with a broken finger, then stepped up to the plate. "David [Graveney, the chairman of selectors] was sitting on the fence, so I made the decision to take the initiative in picking the side," he said. "I thought, 'Sod it, I'm going to pick the players I want to go into war with me.'"

He did, making five changes, but the result was, England fielded a side with a tail that contained three No. 11s. Andrew Caddick batted at No. 8 and was followed by Alan Mullally, Phil Tufnell and Ed Giddins, all of whom could justifiably be labelled genuine rabbits.

If the top-order batsmen were in form, Hussain might have got away with it, but they were not. They had failed to pass 200 four times in six innings before this Test (they failed again in both attempts at The Oval) and had conceded a first-innings lead in the preceding 13 Tests.

Despite this, and another deficit, they appeared set to take the series as New Zealand slipped to 79 for 7 in their second innings, a lead of only 162. A brutal 80 from Chris Cairns left England needing 246, but from a comfortable 122 for 2 they lost eight wickets for 40 to lose by 83 runs.

Hussain was on a hiding to nothing at the post-match formalities, and around 3000 spectators who had gathered on the grass in front of the pavilion did not like what they heard.

"As far as this game is concerned, I'm proud of the lads," he said. "They did everything I had asked them for." His words were greeted with boos and jeers and choruses of "What a load of rubbish" and "We're shit and we know we are".

"The chants hurt," an emotional Hussain said at the press conference shortly afterwards. "When you lose a game you're down enough, and then you get barracked. It's frustration from the fans and it is understandable. That's what you get playing for your country. When I watch my favourites play soccer or golf, I shout out things such as 'Crap shot, Sevvy.'

"But people must understand we don't just turn up at 10am and think, 'Who are we playing today? Oh, it's New Zealand.' We work damn hard. I've been waking up at five or six every morning with nerves in my belly because I so much want England to do well. We have a hell of a lot of desire.

New Zealand coach Steve Rixon described the crowd's reaction as "despicable", adding: "No Test captain should ever be booed by his own fans. There is no excuse for it."

"I'll use the papers," Hussain concluded. "We'll be reminded we're bottom of the heap and I hope all my players read them. I'll tell them 'That's what people think of us.' It should hurt them."

The papers provided all the ammunition he needed. The lead editorial in the Daily Express asked if the team had any pride. "The public does not want to watch a spineless team, and if the same old faces carry on dishing out the same old rubbish, the game will eventually die."

"I could understand it when people booed me," Hussain wrote in his autobiography. "We had hit rock bottom. I knew they were not booing me; I was a symbol of what had been a terrible schemozzle of a summer. It made me more determined. I knew how much the people cared and how it was up to me to turn things round."

What happened next?

  • Fletcher and Hussain formed a solid partnership and much-needed changes to English cricket were driven through, giving the national team priority over counties for the first time as far as players were concerned.
  • England lost 1-2 to South Africa that winter (1999-2000), beat West Indies for the first time in 31 years in 2000, and defeated Pakistan and Sri Lanka away from home in 2000-01.

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa