On March 10, 1993, while England were going down to a terrible defeat in a one-day international in Sri Lanka, the Test and County Cricket Board met at Lord's to discuss the England team's spectacular failure on the three-month tour of the sub-continent. There was widespread speculation that Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, would be forced to resign.
A. C. Smith, the chief executive, insisted that the debate on England matters had been lengthy, wide-ranging and, above all, constructive. Unfortunately, this was not what came through in the newspapers. The main item of news to emerge from this meeting was nothing to do with the cricket. There is a modern fashion for designer stubble, Dexter was quoted as saying, and some people believe it to be very attractive. But it is aggravating to others and we will be looking at the whole question of people's facial hair.
Thousands of miles away, even the tour manager Bob Bennett had been criticised after he was pictured wearing a T-shirt and ill-fitting shorts at a press conference. He had already written to the Board to say the players have been made aware of their responsibilities concerning their appearance. One of the players expressed relief: "At least now we know we didn't lose because we played terribly," he said.
In fact, England did play terribly. They became the first team ever to lose all their matches in a Test Series in India, going down 3-0, each time by a huge margin. They then lost a Test match to Sri Lanka for the first time. Many would say they effectively lost before they even set out. In most cases where the selection of a Test side or tour party comes in for heavy criticism, it is made with the benefit of hindsight. Any numbskull can say that Jones should never have played after Jones has been out first ball for nought in both innings. But rarely, if ever, have so much scorn, indignation and fury been heaped on the selection of a touring team before it even boarded the plane, let alone played a match, as happened when it was announced that David Gower, Jack Russell and Ian Salisbury had been left out.
The belief that Gower's left-handedness, skill against the turning ball and Experience as England's leading scorer in Test history would be invaluable in the conditions peculiar to India had nothing to do with hindsight. Nor did the argument that, on turning pitches, the best wicket-keeper available had to be selected and the best wicket-keeper available was Russell. It was foresight the selectors lacked, and they combined this failure with high-handedness in declining to present a credible case. The assertion that 35-year-old Gower was not considered on the grounds of age appeared simply ridiculous when Graham Gooch (aged 39) and Mike Gatting (35) were included along with 40-year-old John Emburey. Gatting and Emburey were returning to the squad at the earliest possible moment after serving a ban for touring South Africa. It so incensed a group of rebel MCC members, led by Dennis Oliver, that they forced a Special General Meeting of that club at which a motion of no confidence in England's Test selectors was debated. It was carried in the hall, despite vigorous opposition from the committee. Postal votes ensured that it was narrowly rejected overall.
At least the muddle was consistent. The selectors at home made a mess of the original choice by trying to balance the requirements of Test and one-day cricket - hence the selection of Dermot Reeve and Richard Blakey ahead of Gower and Russell. The tour selectors - Keith Fletcher, as manager, Gooch, Alec Stewart, as vice-captain, and Gatting - maintained that standard of muddled thinking throughout the trip. For the First Test at Calcutta, they somehow came to the conclusion that the attack best suited to exploit the spin offered by a bare, dry pitch should contain four seamers. Then, to ensure balance, they chose Salisbury, who had only recently been elevated in status from net bowler to full member of the squad, at the expense of the two spinners, Tufnell and Emburey, they had originally selected ahead of him. In Madras, when Gooch was laid low by food poisoning, they left out the experienced Atherton; likewise in Bombay, the omission of Jarvis, hitherto their most dangerous bowler, in favour of Defreitas, who had hardly bowled a ball in anger all tour, again defied all logic.
The confusion over Stewart's role caused disruption throughout. Originally understood to have been chosen as wicket-keeper first and middle-order batsman second, he was pushed up the order to open in place of the unwell Atherton in Calcutta. But when Gooch pulled out on the morning of the Second Test in Madras, Stewart still stayed as opener with Smith. Atherton was kept out. Thus Blakey, who would not have been rated among the top ten wicket-keepers in county cricket, was selected as England's first-choice wicket-keeper-batsman. He kept his place in Bombay too. He made seven runs in four innings and, not surprisingly, looked unconvincing as a wicket-keeper as well.
Certainly, it was a strenuous tour physically and a stressful one mentally. The mood of the party was not helped by the news they received on arrival in Delhi, that Gooch's long-standing and apparently solid marriage had foundered. At the start of a long haul, during which players would be separated from wives and young children in sometimes less-than-hospitable circumstances, this may have affected some of them more than was at first imagined. In the bar of the team's hotel on New Year's Eve, one of the less experienced members of the party was in such distress that he was already longing for home a mere four days into the tour. The communal violence in the wake of the destruction of the temple of Ayodhya that resulted in hundreds of deaths all over India also created an unsettled atmosphere among the squad. Their fears were heightened when the first international match, due to be played in Ahmedabad, was cancelled because the safety of the players could not be guaranteed. As a result of this and crowd disturbances at games that did take place, some of the party simply gave up trying to come to terms with a country that, at the best of times, can be quite overwhelming.
They were also subjected to a bizarre itinerary, drawn up by the Indian Board in the belief that the Test matches would be unpopular. India's successes proved this quite mistaken. The trip would have been exhausting even if Indian Airlines pilots had not been on strike. For instance, in less than a fortnight before the first Test in Calcutta, England travelled from Delhi to Jaipur, Jaipur to Delhi, Delhi to Chandigarh, Chandigarh to Delhi, Delhi to Bhubaneshwar, Bhubaneshwar to Cuttack and finally Cuttack to Calcutta, all of which would have been draining even without two one-day Internationals and a three-day match in the process.
In any circumstances other than dire necessity Gooch would not have played in Calcutta, and he did not in Madras. Every member of the party went down with stomach problems at some stage and all suffered from the 'flu virus that, after he had witnessed at first hand the smog in the City of Joy, led Dexter to announce a study into the effects of air pollution on cricketers. The pollution was something for which, no matter how long the England party had trained beforehand in the Whittingdale scheme at Lilleshall, they could not have been prepared. Some suggested that, in future, any player fortunate enough to be selected for India should acclimatise by revving a car engine in a locked garage. Even the scorer, Clem Driver of Essex, collapsed during the First Test and returned home; Monica Reeve, mother of Dermot, took over the scorebook.
But it was in their specific technical preparation that England were badly let down and, as a result, left completely exposed against the Indian spinners. The batsmen had spent many hours of intensive practice at Lilleshall facing the England spinners on artificial surfaces known as spinmats. These took spin, but they also had bounce and pace. Consequently, while the batsmen became used to waiting until the last minute before playing the ball off the wicket on the back foot, the bowlers also got into a rhythm in conditions which bore no resemblance to the ones they would actually encounter. When they faced real Indian spinners in real Indian conditions, the batsmen were bamboozled. Instead of using their feet to go forward or padding the ball away with a huge forward lunge, too many stayed rooted to the spot and paid the price. The pattern never changed.
India had formulated a plan to get the best out of their players on wickets designed for them and they carried it out to perfection. The excellent Azharuddin, under pressure at the start of the series following the disastrous tour to South Africa, led them well and played the decisive innings of the series to give his bowlers enough runs to put England's batsmen under pressure in the First Test. England's failure to make the 172 required to avoid the follow-on cost them the match and decided the course of future events. Thereafter, Tendulkar and Sidhu in Madras and Kambli in Bombay played similarly crucial innings against bowling that, in its failure to adhere to the fundamentals of length and line, was hugely disappointing throughout, thereby enabling the spinners to take full control. All three bowled brilliantly on occasions and they finished the series having taking 46 of the 58 England wickets which fell to bowlers. The tourists did no better in Colombo, where the spinners took 15 wickets in England's first-ever Test defeat by Sri Lanka, sandwiched between two further one-day international defeats. Gooch had already left for home, as he had always planned, which also did not help. Kumble was the best of the spinners England met in all four Tests, taking 21 at 19.80. His success set the seal on an unhappy first tour for new team manager Keith Fletcher. After having returned from a costly spying mission to watch India's Test in Johannesburg, Fletcher announced the following verdict on the bespectacled leg-spinner: I didn't see him turn a single ball from leg to off. I don't believe we will have much problem with him. Fortunately for Fletcher, on a tour like this, such a statement seemed merely a routine misjudgment.