The final summer of the 20th century was one to forget for England’s men’s side.
As hosts of the World Cup, they crashed out of the tournament in the group stage – before the official tournament song was released.
A home Test series against New Zealand followed, with Nasser Hussain installed as captain, but the misery continued: England slumped to the bottom of the Test rankings with a 2-1 series defeat to the Black Caps, with the nadir reached at The Oval on August 22.
On the latest episode of the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, Mark Butcher – who played in the series and even captained England when Hussain missed the third Test with injury – looked back on those few weeks.
England began Hussain’s tenure as captain with a memorable victory. In the first Test at Edgbaston, the hosts were bowled out for 126 in reply to New Zealand’s 226, but an Andy Caddick five-wicket haul was followed by a famous nightwatchman’s knock by Butcher’s Surrey teammate Alex Tudor, who finished unbeaten on 99 off 119 balls in a seven-wicket win.
Butcher: “He just went out and smashed it didn’t he? Tudes was a really, really talented boy. 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.”
New Zealand bounced back in the second Test at Lord’s, however, cruising to a nine-wicket win after England mustered up just 186 batting first.
Butcher: “I remember the pitches were spicy for some kind of reason, particularly at Edgbaston and Lord’s. Tudes [Tudor] won us the game at Edgbaston, famously, and we got absolutely hammered at Lord’s on another green top and played really, really badly. There was a sort of feeling that, ‘It was only New Zealand’. And New Zealand have suffered from that forever. Wherever they’ve been, they’ve always been taken slightly lightly and I think there was a sort of arrogance about English cricket – for whatever reason, I have no idea – and an arrogance about the players and the team that led us to be so much less than the sum of our parts.”
Beyond defeat, England suffered another blow at Lord’s in the form of a broken finger for Hussain. With the newly-installed skipper ruled out of the third Test, Butcher was given the captaincy.
Butcher: “I didn’t expect it. It had been talked about, I’d captained Surrey in the first two-and-a-half months of the season in the absence of [Alec] Stewart, [Graham] Thorpe, Adam Hollioake and Saqlain [Mushtaq] etc, who were all on World Cup duty. We were way out in front in the Championship and I got good raps for my captaincy. But still if you look down the list of who was playing, you had two former England captains in Stewart and [Michael] Atherton, both of whom said: ‘No thank you very much’. Graham Thorpe, who was de facto vice-captain, they didn’t ask him, so he had the right hump.
“My abiding memory of captaining the team was this, and this to me summed up English cricket at the time: we picked a 12 or 13 on the proviso that Old Trafford had spun and it was bare and there wasn’t going to be much grass on it. The XI that I was left with looked as though we were going to have four bowlers, with [Peter] Such and [Phil] Tufnell, the two spinners who were going to wreak havoc on these bunsens at Old Trafford, and [Dean] Headley and [Andy] Caddick, two fantastic fast bowlers – but there were only two of them. I flagged this up a day before or two days before the Test match and said: ‘Look, Yorkshire are playing up the road, we’re at Old Trafford, it reverse swings here, why don’t we get Craig White out of the first-class game, bring him down, put him in the squad so we’ve got an option to play an extra seam bowler? Batting’s not going to suffer a great deal and we’ll have a balanced attack.’
“I was told, point-blank: ‘Under no circumstances. You’re just here to flip the coin, that’s it, that’s not going to happen’. I’m thinking, ‘I know what’s going to happen’. Wake up the next day, pull back the curtains, sure enough the clouds are this high. ‘Crikey, if I win the toss, can I bowl first with two seamers?’ I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think I can’. So lo and behold, I walk out with my blazer on, a very proud moment, I win the toss and I rather sheepishly say, ‘We’re going to have a bat’.”
England were bowled out for 199 before Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle both hit centuries to lift New Zealand to a total of 496. Rain helped England to a draw but selectors Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting were sacked with immediate effect. Butcher, who had a high score of 33 in his six innings in the series, was left out of the final match of the series and watched on from afar as England succumbed to an 83-run defeat. Hussain was booed by the fans and Butcher believes it had a profound effect on the man who, alongside Duncan Fletcher, shaped England’s Test resurgence in the early Noughties.
Butcher: “You cannot make any argument that that moment for Nasser wasn’t the catalyst for how he 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. And he knew they were right. From there on in, things improved.”