For those who are not aware of the full context of England's current Test Series against India, victory for the home side by two clear matches would mean that they leap above the visitors and into first place in the World Rankings. Whatever our frustrations about an isolated result here or there, it is clear that as a power in the world of cricket, England are as strong as they have been in at least three decades and possibly more. We should probably enjoy these positive times while they last, for as is the case in most sports, the fortunes of a side, whether it competes in domestic or international competition is bound to fluctuate in a cycle between varying relative levels of performance. No team can stay at the peak of its powers forever, and there will inevitably be high and low points over time. England's absolute nadir in the modern era of cricket came in 1999.
The fatal moment unfolds as Chris Cairns, who has been the best player on either side in New Zealand's visit to these shores, runs in and bowls to Alan Mullally. Now the fact that the Leicestershire left-armer is batting at number nine in this match should tell you that something was not right with this England team from the off. In what was described at the time as 'the tail from hell', Mullally was judged to be the lesser of three evils with the willow when placed alongside two other renowned rabbits, Phil Tufnell and Ed Giddins. In England's first innings, a difficult situation at 150-7 had rapidly resolved itself negatively to the effect of 153 all out. Contrast this with the Kiwis, whose strong lower order containing Cairns and Daniel Vettori, had already rescued them from perilous positions twice in the match. 87-6 and a truly horrific 39-6 had somehow been salvaged, becoming 236 and 162 all out in their first and second digs respectively. Vettori's half-century was critical to the first recovery, while Cairns had later turned the match on its head with a brutal 80 (including four sixes) to set England a challenging 246 to win on a difficult pitch.
In truth it was the depth of batting (or lack of) that had been the most evident difference between the two sides, and that England had gone into a deciding fourth match level at 1-1 was in itself somewhat unjust on the tourists. They had played the superior cricket throughout the summer, losing an opener where they had led on first innings to a freakish 99 not out from nightwatchman and home debutant Alex Tudor. The Kiwis had then bounced back to trounce England by nine wickets at Lords, and taken a 300 run lead after one dig each at Old Trafford. Only the rain and a dogged rearguard action from the recently-recalled Michael Atherton had saved the hosts from almost certain defeat. However, the cruel clarity of sport and its ability to establish who is the better team or individual on the field of play eventually tells. There are only so many reprieves or extra lives before the truth bites, and England's luck finally ran out on a fateful day at the Oval.
Alec Stewart, England's last recognised batsman, had been out at 148-6 after mis-timing a pull shot straight to square leg off the excellent bowling of Dion Nash (the fast-medium strike bowler had in fact come a whisker from winning a Test Match for New Zealand at Lords as far back as 1994). This left the task of knocking off the remaining 98 runs in with numbers seven to eleven. As well as the aformentioned bunny squad, they comprised of Ronnie Irani, an all-rounder in the true 1990s English sense, not quite up to Test standard with either bat or ball, and Andrew Caddick, who had bowled well to take 20 wickets in the series, but was in reality an international number ten batting well above his natural position. If you add up the number of runs scored and total dismissals in Test Cricket of the five men charged with saving the day for England back at the Oval in 1999 then you come out with a less than encouraging average of 8.51 (in fairness this is based on the stats of their entire career, but then Giddins and Irani never played for England again, while Caddick, Mullally and Tufnell did not noticeably change as batsmen in the period that followed).
I once read a piece in a magazine called 'the worst Test Batsmen of All Time' and both Mullally and Tufnell appeared in its top ten (check out the undisputed number one, Pommie Mbangwa, if you want to see truly inept batting at its finest - yes he's worse than the Kiwis' own Chris Martin). However, I was intrigued to find that the entry for Mullally started with the words, "should not be in this list - he can be the most wonderful striker of a cricket ball", before attributing his dreadful average to "wild rushes of blood, totally out of context with the match situation". Now there may be a grain of truth in this, given that his finest moment with the bat in international cricket had come when he clattered a rapid 16 in a test down under less than a year earlier. Given that England actually won that match by the meagre sum of twelve runs, there is a simplistic but vaguely logical line of argument that it was Mullally's genius with the Willow that enabled an unlikely victory. Perhaps that is what secured him the loft berth at seven wickets down ahead of 'the Cat' and Warwickshire's walking wicket, Giddins...
Anyway, "wild rushes of blood, totally out of context with the match situation" - here goes. With England nine down and requiring a further 84, Cairns runs in and pitches the ball up. Mullally, either not wishing to stick around or fancying his chances of an unlikely heave into row 29, drives the ball with everything he has, and sends it airborne. The shot is chronically mis-timed, does not come off the middle, and despite its executioner being a powerful man, travels further skyward than it does towards the boundary. Roger Twose, a veteran of County Cricket who had only just broken into the New Zealand side, steps in from long on and takes a comfortable catch. The match is over, with the Kiwis winning by 83 runs to also claim a deserved series victory.
And with that, England are officially the worst Test side in the world. Their opponents, who had propped up the rankings going in, had absolutely stuffed them on the field of play by a far greater margin than the 2-1 scoreline actually suggested. In fact, but for Tudor's once-in-a-lifetime impersonation of Gordon Greenidge at Edgbaston and a welcome spot of Mancunian rain, the result could very conceivably have been a 4-0 whitewash in New Zealand's favour, and this serves to underline how bad an international side England had become at that time. An ironically glorious chant of "we're the worst team in the world" rang around the Oval, while captain Nasser Hussain's attempts to defend his players and commend their effort were met by an insensitive and rather unpleasant headline of "NASSER INSANE" in 'the Sun' the next day. In reality, this was not a mess of Hussain's making, stuck as he was with a situation that had been allowed to deteriorate alarmingly for a decade.
The 1990s were a disaster zone for English cricket, bringing as they did a cocktail of poor management, negative performances, unfulfilled talent and some truly appalling results, especially on tours that descended into embarrassment. Whitewash in India, with two defeats by an innings, the famous collapse to 46 all out in Port of Spain in 1994 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmMn4bhi-KU. There was also the drawn series in Zimbabwe, with the 'flippin murdered 'em' test in Bulawayo, and as for the ashes, well they became a non-contest and a formality throughout the period of 1989-2003. The summer of 1993, which was the first England-Australia contest I remember with utter clarity, was torture, save for a token victory at the Oval against a touring side already 4-0 up and mentally on the plane home. Selection was haphazard, with the sword of damocles permanently dangled over newly selected players to perform in the here and now, and the one league, eighteen team county system, which had become stale and no longer fit for purpose by the mid 1990s, was leaving those players exhausted when they were called up to play in international competition.
In short, it was madness.
With the benefit of hindsight, the rock bottom of English cricket came at a good time, as it underlined the necessity of implementing some of the changes that were on the table at the point:- a two-division domestic league to reduce the 'comfort factor' that might kill the drive of young players, central contracts for England players to keep them fresh for Test Matches and ration the amount of cricket that they played in between, a professional coaching setup, greater emphasis on fitness and sports psychology - ie putting the England team, whose matches generate the greatest revenue for the ECB, at the centre of the game's domestic structure. Would England have ascended up the world rankings and won three of the last four Ashes series had these measures not been in place? Of course we'll never know, but the logical money would have to be against it, and I would probably be far from alone in not wishing to find out.
The current England team play cricket that is dynamic, fast-paced, bold and to a consistently high standard. I dread to think what they would do to the side that represented the same country in 1999, but here's something pertinent that I only discovered when researching for this piece. England took the rare step of selecting a fourteen man squad for that decisive match at the Oval, and one of the unfortunates who found themselves left out was a 20 year old bowling all rounder, who batted aggressively and was one of the few twirlymen in England who could turn the ball a considerable margin. His name was Graeme Swann, who now is not only regarded as the best slow bowler currently operating in world cricket, but also averages 24 with the bat from the position of number nine that Alan Mullally occupied that day. It is just possible that had Swann been selected then the course of history may have been radically altered. However, if like myself you believe that rock bottom is sometimes necessary in order to move forward, then perhaps we should be grateful he was left out some 12 years ago.
Take care, and I'll see you around...