I was penning a poetic introduction to this summer’s imminent Ashes based around my own formative experience of Ashes misery when I was distracted by Cricinfo.
If you want to see how much has changed in English cricket, particularly the dynamic against the Australians, since the dark days pre-Michael Vaughan, I recommend a look at the scorecards from the 2001 series.
Australia won 4-1, but that’s only half the story. This, truly, was a demoralizing drubbing. Two innings defeats in the first (Edgbaston) and the fifth (The Oval) framed eight and seven wicket margins at Lord’s and Trent Bridge respectively.
England managed to bowl Australia out on only four occasions in the entire series (and one of those was for 576 runs). Even in the single Test victory (the fourth at Headingley), England’s bowlers did not manage to take twenty wickets – instead an attacking declaration by stand-in skipper Gilchrist and a sublime century by Mark Butcher sealed a consolation.
Take a look at England’s selection and you can see a losing mindset. It’s almost as though they went into the series expecting to be thrashed and picked a side that might at least prolong the agony.
The First Test saw England go in with seven specialist batsmen (admittedly with Stewart taking the gloves at 6). It was a batting line up that included Ian Ward and Usman Afzaal, players with decent county records but utterly exposed at Test level. None of the batsmen offered anything significant with the ball (although it must be noted that Butcher did pick up four cheap wickets at the end of the Australians’ mammoth innings).
That left a four-strong bowling attack of Gough, Caddick, Giles and White. Now, Gough and Caddick were fine bowlers and Giles came of age in the 05 Ashes (complementing a far more threatening seam attack), but did Hussain and the selectors ever truly believe that this foursome was capable of taking 20 wickets?
The selection of White (career batting av: 27, bowling: 38) is indicative of a defensive approach; a man to bolster the batting at eight and bowl at a fair pace. To play White as part of a four man attack though? It’s almost as if England had given up before the coin was tossed.
As a point of balance it should be noted that Australia picked seven batsmen (including Gilchrist, at 7, who really announced himself to English audiences in this Edgbaston Test with a blistering 152 at over a run a ball). However, with an attack of Gillespie, McGrath, Warne, and Lee – all at the height of their powers – they could afford this luxury. Not to mention the fact that the Waugh brothers offered very decent part-time support (not that it were needed too often).
Second Test at Lord’s and England ditch spin completely (picking Cork in favour of Giles). Ramprakash is recalled to the side in place of Afzaal in another fool’s errand. Australia only need to bat a second time for 3 overs to win.
At Trent Bridge England picked five bowlers (Tudor in for Cork, and Croft added – White batted seven but, if proof were needed of his redundancy returned 7 runs and 0 wickets in the match) and managed to bowl out Australia for 190 in their first innings. Ignoring Butcher’s Headingley, this was the only match of the series in which England were part of a meaningful contest.
England reverted to four bowlers for the final match of the series at The Oval bringing in Phil Tufnell (1/174) and Jimmy Ormond (1/115). Usman Afzaal was recalled and made fifty in what would be his final Test Match. Warne took eleven wickets in the game.
In many ways 2001 was the dark before the dawn. What might surprise some was that coach Duncan Fletcher and central contracts, those oft-cited agents of recovery, were in place by this time. People often talk about the 90s as the nadir of English cricket, but this 2001 series was an ugly hangover. Perhaps the hangover that in its head-pounding, stomach-churning misery convinces the boozer not to drink again.