Today we welcome new writer Billy Crawford to TFT. Remember when we finally won our first Test series against the West Indies since 1969? It took all of 31 years. And Billy is here to remind us how it all unfolded …
“You wouldn’t write the script, you wouldn’t put it in a comic book!”
The voice of Mark Nicholas still echoes down the years to me since that distant and glorious summer of 2000.
It was the first summer of the new millennium and the world was awash with optimism about what the future would bring. By the autumn, English cricket too, would share this emotion. The dark days of the 1990’s had been banished, along with their grim batting collapses and the beleaguered faces of England captains explaining each crushing defeat.
I had come to the game towards the end of that time in the Spring of 1999. My interest had been awakened by the World Cup in England and, in particular, the brilliance of the South Africans and Australians. Inspiration from the England team was in short supply.
That summer ended in humiliation, with Nasser Hussain being booed on the Oval balcony after England had collapsed to a series defeat to New Zealand, a result which confirmed England’s place at the bottom of the Test rankings, officially the worst team in the world. One national newspaper published a front page of a set of burning stumps proclaiming, as had been declared in 1878, the death of English cricket.
With this in mind, the arrival of the West Indian tourists the following summer was not greeted with a great deal of optimism.
As a wide-eyed 13-year-old, I was excited to witness the talents of Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh for the first time. This was, of course, the days before the Sky TV takeover, when a young child with a working TV set could spend their entire summer holiday sat in front of the screen watching every ball, every ebb and flow of each Test match before running out into the garden to re-enact it all. If this sounds like a rose-tinted, idealistic recollection of the past I can assure you it truly is not. It really was that glorious a time to be a young cricket fan.
It became an even more wonderful time on a chilly Friday evening at Lord’s during the second test. England had been steamrollered by Ambrose and Walsh in the first Test at Edgbaston and had collapsed in two sessions for 134 in the first innings at Lord’s to concede a first innings deficit of 133. Another crushing defeat loomed.
Then something extraordinary happened. First, Darren Gough took a marvellous diving catch at fine leg to dismiss Sherwin Campbell. Then Andy Caddick, England’s second innings king, gave the tourists a taste of the own medicine. He peppered them with the sort of short balls that they had meted out to England over the years and the West Indians fended them all into the grateful hands of Mark Ramprakash at short leg.
By the end of the day the West Indies had been shot out for 54, yes 54 all out! It seemed scarcely believable, something that might happen on my Brian Lara Cricket PlayStation game but certainly not something that could happen to the actual Brian Lara and his team mates in real life.
The following day I was absent for the nerve shredding run chase as England attempted to chase down their target of 188u. I had tickets for the Formula 3 championship at the Castle Combe track, indulging my other passion of motor racing. This being the days before mobile internet, and having forgotten to bring my radio, I had no way of knowing how events were unfolding at Lord’s. However, arriving home in time for the evening highlights package, I sat glued to the TV as the great Walsh and Ambrose once again made mincemeat of England’s top order. It fell to the combative figure of Dominic Cork, a man who could probably start a fight in an empty room, to be the hero. His nuggety 33 not out was just enough to see England home with only two wickets left, and in Lord’s 100th Test match no less! I still have the commemorative VHS.
After a rain ruined draw at Old Trafford, notable for the Test debut of a certain Marcus Treskothick, even more remarkable events were to follow at Headingley where England wrapped up victory inside two days. After securing a first innings lead of 100, England’s two best-of-enemies, Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, took the new ball. I arrived home from the shops just in time to see Sherwin Campbell edge Gough to slip, reducing the West Indians to 21-4.
What followed next will stay with me forever. Andy Caddick may not have been the most loved of England cricketers. His slightly morose demeanour, gangling walk and rumours of being difficult to manage did not at once lend themselves to the guise of a hero. However, like my other favourite player, Steve Harmison, when everything clicked into place, my goodness, could he bowl. Here he was once again, unplayable. 4 wickets were taken in one over as batsman after batsman saw their stumps scattered by the Somerset seamer.
Mark Nicholas’ commentary seems to have sound tracked many of the best moments of my life, his “Hellooooo, Massiiiiiive!” in response to Andrew Flintoff hitting Brett Lee on to the television gantry in 2005 has lived long in the memory. However, this one may be the best. “Another one gone! 4 in the over! You wouldn’t write the script, you wouldn’t put it in a comic book!” Indeed, you wouldn’t Mark. Sometimes the truth is far more wonderful than fiction can ever be.
And so to The Oval and a chance for England to win a Test series against the West Indies for the first time in 31 years. By now the new school year had started. However, the wonders of being home-schooled meant that if I got up early enough, and if I could drag my mother/ teacher up at the crack of dawn, then I could get all my schoolwork done before the first ball was bowled at 11am. Being the cricket obsessive that I was, I was determined to get up even earlier on that Thursday morning so that I could be finished in time to see the toss.
It is just as well that I was ready for the start of play as I will never forget Mike Atherton and Marcus Treskothick batting through the first half hour of play, without a run being scored. In these days of constant excitement and the whizz-bang of T20 it seems almost impossible to imagine a passage of play as riveting as this. The Oval held its breath while England’s openers defied everything those two great champions, Ambrose and Walsh, could throw at them. When the first run was eventually scored, the roar from the crowd was akin to a goal being scored in a cup final. England’s diligence was rewarded, with the openers eventually putting on a stand of 159. How many of the current team would have that sort of patience I wonder?
Atherton’s second innings century set up a magical final day where thousands were locked out of the famous old ground as England bid for victory in front of a raucous full house. The Wisden Trophy was eventually secured just after tea when Dominic Cork trapped Courtney Walsh lbw. The great Ambrose and Walsh left an English field for the last time arm in arm, perhaps recalling better days. Nasser Hussain lifted the Wisden Trophy as the crowd basked in the September sunshine.
There are so many great memories I have of that wonderful summer but perhaps my favourite is one moment on the morning after the Headingley Test. Channel 4’s Saturday cricket roadshow was trying to make sense of the events of the previous evening. Mark Nicholas walked into the home dressing room and there in one corner sat a very hungover young man with a floppy, boyband fringe, nursing a cup of coffee.
That young man, surprised by the cameras, was Michael Vaughan, and this was the summer when he established himself in the England side. 5 years later, he would go on to lead his country through an even more glorious summer, perhaps the greatest English cricket has ever seen. The seeds for that triumph were sown during that first, wonderful season of the new millennium. Heady days indeed.