An England side bereft of many top players - Alec Bedser missed out because his county felt he was being overworked, an ironic reversal of today's world - were given a working-over in the Caribbean. Still suffering a hangover from the war, England were reliant on ageing players, typified by the selection of 45-year-old Gubby Allen as captain. Allen - who was still fast enough for one selector the previous summer to ask about "this young Allen feller at Middlesex who is pretty darn sharp" - tore a muscle skipping on the outbound ship and struggled throughout. Overall, England never had the firepower to trouble West Indies. So weak was the side that only two England bowlers - Jim Laker and Ken Cranston - played against Australia the following summer, and even then they were peripheral figures. The averages were headed by Harold Butler, but malaria restricted him to the one Test, while Laker was the only bowler to emerge with a reputation enhanced, his 18 wickets costing 30.04.
From the days of Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz, through the Wasim and Waqar era and onto the current crop of Shoaib Akhtar and his acolytes, Pakistan have rarely wanted for pace attacks. But it wasn't always thus, and in 1964-65 they were faced with their first of many transition periods, as Fazal Mahmood's legendary old guard bowed out, and a team including six new faces took on the mantle. Asif Iqbal and Majid Khan would later earn greater recognition as batsmen, but here they were sharing the new ball on debut, for the one-off Test against Australia at Karachi. In Pervez Sajjad and Intikhab Alam, Pakistan did possess a pair of quality spinners, but they were blunted by a Bobby Simpson century as nine bowlers in total were called upon in the fourth innings.
West Indies were in transition as the 1970s started. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, their stalwarts of the sixties, had gone, and the new generation of awesome fast bowlers had yet to emerge. Only the ageing but still outstanding Garry Sobers bridged the gap, but it was to much to expect him to shoulder the burden of leading an inexperienced - and blunt - attack. In five Tests, India were never bowled out for less than 347 and never bowled out twice in a match. In the deciding Test, West Indies fielded a bowling line-up of Sobers, John Shepherd, Uton Dowe, Jack Noreiga and David Holford. India scored 427 and 360 in a draw which won them the series, and of Sobers's four colleagues, only Holford, his cousin, played more than five Tests.
India were the unofficial world champions in the early 1970s, their success built on their outstanding spin quartet of Bishan Bedi, S Venkataraghavan, BS Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna. Their opening medium-pace seam bowlers were little more than a means to remove the shine from the ball - although Abid Ali had enough about him to ruin Geoff Boycott's summer. But in cold and wet conditions in England in 1974, the spinners were reduced to bit-part players and India were put to the sword. In the second Test at Lord's, England scored 629, Bedi finishing with 6 for 226. In the final Test at Edgbaston, England ambled to 459 for 2 declared, India's three spinners finishing with 2 for 314 as India again lost by an innings. In the three-match series, the spinners took 10 for 1012. The spell had been broken, and India, who lost 3-0, were on the slide.
If Australia thought their Test team had reached rock-bottom during the Packer years, they were sorely mistaken - come the mid-1980s, and brand new depths were plumbed. The retirement of Dennis Lillee, coupled with the defection of key players such as Terry Alderman to Kim Hughes's rebel tour of South Africa, meant that Australia arrived in England for the 1985 Ashes with a rag-tag array of has-beens and greenhorns. The most threatening thing about Jeff Thomson, now approaching 35, was his livid blond mullet, while the 20-year-old Craig McDermott was some five years short of maturity, for all that he grabbed 30 wickets in the six Tests. England, themselves no great shakes at the time, made a pretence of a contest with the series still level at 1-1 after four matches, but consecutive innings defeats at Edgbaston and The Oval confirmed that things could only get better for Australian cricket.
England used 29 different cricketers in the course of their 4-0 home-series drubbing in the 1989 Ashes, so it's little wonder that, by the time the sixth and final Test came around, the selectors had scraped the barrel clean. The rebel tour to South Africa had stripped them of first-choice names such as Neil Foster and Paul Jarvis; while those future stalwarts, Angus Fraser and Devon Malcolm, were absent through injury. Into the breach came Derek Pringle, who had been sidelined since the first-Test defeat, and the Kent debutant Alan Igglesden, whose ringing endorsement from England's chairman of selectors, Ted Dexter, was that he was the "14th choice seamer" in the country. With Gladstone Small and David Capel making up a four-pronged attack, and Nick Cook providing the spin option, England did well to avoid defeat, though some timely and torrential downpours no doubt helped their cause.
This will forever be recalled as Gooch's match. He made 456 runs in two innings including a career-best 333 in the first, and then even sealed the match with a direct-hit run-out. But, it is fair to point out, it was not the most taxing attack that the big man had ever faced. Spearheaded by an already ageing Kapil Dev and his long-term sidekick Manoj Prabhakar, with Sanjeev Sharma playing what would prove to be his second and final Test, there was little menace in the pace attack and not much mystery about the spinners either. Ravi Shastri's main role was now to open the batting, while Narendra Hirwani's 16-wicket debut against West Indies in January 1988 had long since been proved to be an anomaly. Curiously, given the dearth of attacking options at his disposal, Mohammad Azharuddin still chose to bowl first on winning the toss. Six-hundred-and-fifty-three runs later, he could only rue his decision.
Throughout the 1990s (and into the 2000s as well for that matter) Australia's bowling line-ups had the sort of continuity that made lesser opponents spit with jealousy. With Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath invariably at the helm, and class acts such as Jason Gillespie providing incisive back-up, no opposition would ever get any let-up at any stage of an innings. But every once in a while, injuries and unavailability upset the status quo and Australia's soft underbelly would be exposed. Against India in 1997-98, their second-stringers were marmalised. McGrath and Gillespie never made the trip, and when Paul Reiffel went lame after the first Test, the new ball was shared between Michael Kasprowicz and the soon-to-be one-cap-wonder, Paul Wilson, who lasted 12 overs before pulling up injured as well. With Greg Blewett (14 wickets in 46 Tests) an unlikely first-chance option, and the rookie offspinner Gavin Robertson partnering an out-of-sorts Warne, Australia were condemned to a thumping innings-and-219-run defeat, and ultimately lost the series 2-1.
The duel effects of a draining Ashes summer and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks meant that England launched their series in India with one of their most threadbare attacks of all time. These days, Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff are world-beaters in their own right, but back then they were a pair of veritable rookies. Hoggard had a single wicketless Test under his belt, while Flintoff had a history of back problems so severe that at one stage he seemed unlikely ever to bowl competitively again. They had a huge void to fill as well. Of the attack that had secured back-to-back wins over Pakistan and Sri Lanka the previous winter, Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick had opted out of the tour, Craig White had lost a yard of pace, and Ashley Giles was struggling with a heel injury. At Mohali, England's attack was completed by Surrey's Jimmy Ormond, who never played for his country again, and the debutant Yorkshire spinner, Richard Dawson. It wasn't a recipe for success, but neither did the team fail. Under the hard-bitten leadership of Nasser Hussain, they fought their way to a creditable 1-0 defeat over three Tests.
Zimbabwe cricket has been in a sad and spiralling decline in the past few years, but as with all such things, it is when the off-field politicking results in an on-field debacle that the world finally has to sit up and take notice. The most visible tipping point of recent times came at Harare in May 2004, when Sri Lanka took on and routed a third-string opposition made up of no fewer than five debutants. In Zimbabwe's previous Test, against Bangladesh in March, Heath Streak, Doug Hondo, Ray Price, Travis Friend and the young allrounder, Sean Ervine, had formed an attack that could at least earn the respect of its opponents. Two months later, sadly, and the only bowler that remained was Hondo. The situation was so desperate that Zimbabwe's captain and wicketkeeper, Tatenda Taibu, even resorted to turning his arm over - and picked up a rare wicket to boot.
Sometimes nuggets of hope are forged in the bleakest moments of despair. In March 2005, West Indian cricket had been paralysed by a bitter contracts dispute between the national sponsors, Digicel, and their arch-rivals in the telecommunications world, Cable & Wireless, who had secured individual contracts with several key members of the side, including Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan. With talks between the two parties deadlocked, the West Indian team that took the field for the first Test against South Africa at Bourda contained two new caps in Narsingh Deonarine and Donavon Pagon, a new captain in Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and not an iota of hope against a powerful opposition that had crushed them 3-0 at home the previous year. But for three days the unthinkable happened. Chanderpaul made an unbeaten double-century and declared at 543 for 5, then South Africa were skittled for 188 in reply. Guyana's infamous weather, however, had the final say, and a chastened South Africa regrouped to win the next two matches.