When England exited their own World Cup before most of the country had even woken up to the fact it was happening, it appeared the team could sink no lower. In Wisden, editor Matthew Engel lamented the failure to seize upon a “make or break opportunity for cricket to re-establish itself in the public’s affection”. That disconnect only grew as the summer continued, as sparse crowds watched a chaotic and demoralised team plunge to the bottom of the Test rankings.
Having fallen at the first hurdle in a dismal World Cup campaign and then disposed of Alec Stewart as captain and David Lloyd as coach, the visit of lowly New Zealand for a four-Test series was supposed to provide a welcome pick-me-up. The Kiwis had been rooted to the bottom of the Test rankings since they were launched in 1996 and had not won a series away from home in seven years. England did not have had a coach in place – instead relying on Graham Gooch to offer some throwdowns and national selector David Graveney to manage the team while the incoming Duncan Fletcher saw out his contract with Glamorgan – but they were considered strong favourites under their new skipper Nasser Hussain.
“There was a feeling that it was ‘only New Zealand’,” recalls Mark Butcher, the England opener who played three matches in the series, including one as stand-in captain. “People have always taken them lightly and there was an arrogance. It led us to be so much less than the sum of our parts.”
Hussain’s first selection meeting as skipper highlighted the size of the task. The panel of David Graveney, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch were joined by Ian Botham and Jack Birkenshaw as “official observers”, and the new skipper was “totally incredulous” as senior players he had identified as the heartbeat of his team were put forward for the chop.
“There was a lot of support that summer for Botham to become a selector, but I’m glad it didn’t happen,” wrote Hussain in his autobiography, Playing with Fire. “Yes, he is a top man who cares passionately about English cricket, but there was never any consistency in his arguments. He’d say one thing one day and then suddenly he’d be saying that same bloke he had been pushing for a year was now complete rubbish … By the end of his time advising the selection panel, I was virtually listening to what he thought I should do and then doing exactly the opposite.”
England ended up selecting 18 players across the four-match series, six of whom played a solitary Test. Hussain recalls having reservations about the line-up he was handed for the opening match at Edgbaston – where debuts were awarded to Aftab Habib, the prolific Leicestershire batter, and Chris Read, the 20-year-old Notts keeper – but his first Test in charge ended in triumph, Alex Tudor’s stunning unbeaten 99 as a nightwatchman steering England to victory.
“I remember Nasser looking around the changing room and saying, ‘Right then, who’s going in?’” recalls Tudor. “He was normally No 3 and he wanted a nightwatchman. People were looking a bit sheepish so he said: ‘Right Tudes, you got some in the first innings, get in.’ We came off for bad light after I faced one ball – never saw it. Next morning I went down to the nets with Ramps [Mark Ramprakash] and he said, ‘Have some fun’. I said, ‘Look mate, if I’m in for any period of time, there’ll be fireworks!’”
“He just went out and smashed it,” says Butcher, then a teammate of Tudor’s at Surrey. “He made it through the evening, teed off the next day and we made the highest score in the Test match for three down. Tudes was a really talented boy, really talented – genuinely quick before the worst of the back injuries and a proper player with the bat. That was the only high spot of the entire summer!”
It was to be Tudor’s last involvement in the series after a scan – organised by Surrey much to the ECB’s anger – revealed a hot spot in his knee which threatened to become a stress fracture.
The positivity of Edgbaston rapidly drained away at Lord’s after Hussain opted to bat under gloomy skies and his side was skittled for 186. Chris Cairns was the destroyer-in-chief, collecting six wickets including his iconic dismissal of Read, the greenhorn keeper completely flummoxed by a slower ball that nutmegged him.
“I didn’t see the ball come out of his hand,” says Read, who was dismissed for a duck. “The first recollection I have – and it is quite vivid in my mind – is the sound of the ball hitting the pitch, swiftly followed by the sound of the bails being dislodged. Ducking was just a fight or flight reflex – ‘Where the hell is it?’ It was the perfect ball for the conditions. It was just unfortunate I was on the end of it!”
Hussain remembers the youngster looking “a little out of his depth”. Read, who had a four-year exile from the Test side after the New Zealand series, admits as much himself. “They were looking to play Alec Stewart as a batter and we were in the pre-Gilchrist era where in the first-class game the batting side of things wasn’t considered quite as important [for wicketkeepers]. The selectors had an eye on the future so I can see how it made sense. But was I ready? Absolutely not.
“I’d played about one season’s worth of first-class cricket and had done pretty well but the difference between a four-day county game with a couple of hundred members in the ground versus a full house and the media scrutiny that went with a Test match was a real eye-opener and something that I wasn’t really prepared for.”
Matt Horne’s gritty century guided the Kiwis to a first-innings lead before England capitulated again, the tailender Andrew Caddick top-scoring for the second time in three innings. New Zealand strolled to a nine-wicket win to level the series and a broken finger sustained in the field by Hussain meant a replacement skipper was needed for Old Trafford, only adding to the general sense of mayhem and friction.
“Thorpey [Graham Thorpe] took over from Nasser on the field at Lord’s,” says Butcher, “but between the end of that match and the beginning of the next one it had been decided by David Graveney and Graham Gooch to give me the captaincy.
“I didn’t expect it. If you look down the list of who was playing, you’ve got two former England captains [Stewart and Mike Atherton], both of whom said ‘no thank you very much’, and Graham Thorpe, who was de facto vice-captain. They didn’t ask him, so he had the right hump. By the time we get to Old Trafford I’m not the most popular bloke in the dressing room. I didn’t think it was directed at me personally, but more at the general situation. How the hell did this happen?”
With the pitch at Old Trafford expected to offer plenty of turn, Butcher was handed a provisional XI featuring the off-breaks of Peter Such and the left-arm spin of Phil Tufnell, with Dean Headley and Caddick his only two pace options. Sensing trouble, the stand-in skipper raised his concerns and requested that Craig White be added to the squad as fast-bowling cover.
“I was told point blank: ‘No, you’re just here to flip the coin, that’s it.’ I’m thinking, ‘I know what’s going to happen here.’ Sure enough, I wake up on the day of the match, pull back the curtains and the clouds are this low. I’m like: ‘Crikey, if I win the toss, can I bowl first with two seamers? I don’t think I can!’ So I walk out with my blazer on, very proud moment, win the toss and rather sheepishly say we’re going to have a bat, thinking, ‘Oh God, please let the sun come out.’ Dion Nash bowls us out for under 200.”
England conceded a first-innings deficit just shy of 300 before the rain came down in Manchester, a sodden draw leaving the series tied at 1-1 with one match to play. Butcher had told the press after the game that no one’s position in the side was safe and he was proven right when he was axed for Darren Maddy, who made his Test debut in the decider at The Oval.
Ed Giddins, the Warwickshire seamer, was also given his Test cap and formed part of the most hapless English tail in living memory, with Alan Mullally (Test average 5.52) eye-wateringly high at No 9, one place above the less-than-prolific Tufnell.
With three No 11s, Caddick at No 8 and Ronnie Irani brought into the side at No 7 after a three-year absence, a flaky batting line-up looked even more vulnerable, but this time Hussain could have no complaints with the make-up of his side. Gooch and Gatting had been ousted from the selection panel after the Old Trafford Test, leaving the skipper free to pick who he wished.
“I thought: ‘Sod it, I’m going to try and pick the players who I want to go into war with me’,” wrote Hussain. “I wanted fighters. I didn’t want any more squabbling. Anyway, this game really gets my goat because we played bloody well, the selection had been almost solely mine and we should have won.”
That’s a generous recollection from Hussain, whose side slumped to 153 all out in their first innings, conceding a first-innings lead of 83 (the 14th consecutive match they had been behind on first innings, a world record at the time). But it’s true that with the Kiwis 39-6 in their second dig, there was a chance for England to put a little gloss on a tumultuous summer. Instead, Cairns played the defining innings of the series, depositing Tufnell into the stands on four occasions on his way to a quickfire 80 which left England needing 246 for victory.
At 123-2 the target looked within reach, but that lengthy tail lived up to its reputation as the hosts were eventually shot out for 162. As Hussain gave his post-match interview from the Oval balcony, his insistence that he was “proud” of his team’s performance was greeted with a chorus of boos and chants of “We’re shit and we know we are” from the spectators who had gathered on the grass in front of the pavilion.
New Zealand’s victory, their first series win on English soil since 1986, lifted them to eighth in the Test rankings, leaving England bottom of the pile. English cricket, not for the first time, nor the last, was in existential crisis.
“It was dismal, absolutely dismal,” recalls Butcher. “It was rock bottom but that moment on the balcony at the Oval was the catalyst for how Nasser would go about doing things for the rest of his time as captain. You could see his brain was going to explode. He was so angry. From there on, things improved [after Fletcher became coach, England won four consecutive series in 2000 following defeat in South Africa]. Nobody else could have done what Nasser did and pulled it off. He was exactly the right man at the right time.”
This article was published first in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Guardian readers can get three digital issues of the magazine for just £2.49 or three print issues for just £5.99