Tuesday, 31 July 2018

English Test cricket in the 80s

With England’s 1000th Test being played at Edgbaston this week, it has been a joy for a cricket nerd like me to wallow in the numerous articles taking a look back at the best matches and players that have been part of 141 years of history.

Naturally, I am drawn to the decade of my childhood, and I started to recall the highs and lows of English Test cricket in the 1980s. Sadly, there were far too few of the former and rather too many of the latter.

Ask anyone who witnessed England’s Test cricket setup during 1980-89, and they will come up with many common themes; selectorial mayhem, rebel tours, collapses, Blackwash (x 2), Botham’s Ashes, On Top Down Under, Shakoor Rana, the Summer of Four Captains, Ashes humiliation. It was rarely dull.

The decade would start and end with series defeats against Australia. Indeed, under Mike Brearley’s captaincy, England lost the first two Tests of the 1980s, starting as they meant to go on. Soon, Brearley’s reign would be over (for now). After the Jubilee Test against India in Bombay, the hunt for a new captain would begin.

The hero of the victory against India would be handed the poisoned chalice. Ian Terrence Botham’s 13 wickets and century in Bombay highlighted his importance to the national team, and it was hoped that the 24-year-old could lead by example. It didn’t quite turn out like that.

In truth, Botham was unlucky that two of his series in charge were against a superb West Indies team. But with his form deteriorating rapidly, and the first Test of the 1981 Ashes lost, Beefy’s pair at Lord’s proved the final act of his less than successful term; four defeats and eight draws in twelve Tests.

“Who writes your scripts, Beefy?” Graham Gooch’s quote after Botham had taken a wicket on his first ball back after a cannabis related ban in 1986 was accurate. But the particular plotline for the rest of the 1981 Ashes was too good to be true. Even Hollywood might have rejected this barely believable script.

Headingley: Botham back in the wickets, and runs, but England forced to follow-on; England 500/1; Beefy and Dilley giving it some welly; that confectionery stall; Willis, seemingly in a trance, taking 8/43 for one of the most fantastic victories ever known.

Edgbaston: Australia apparently righting the wrong of the previous Test, 114/5 chasing only 151 for victory; Beefy steaming in to take 5-1 in 28 balls, stump raised aloft. Old Trafford: Beefy bludgeoning 118 off just 102 balls, applying the final touches to Botham’s Ashes.

It would never be that good again in the 1980s. How could anything possibly compete with that? In the next few years we saw a brief spell in charge for Keith Fletcher, and then Bob Willis took the reins.

Willis’ years as captain saw England perform like Guinness – great at home, but not the best traveller. Home wins over India, Pakistan, and New Zealand were all well and good, but overseas the team struggled.

The Ashes were relinquished, despite the relief and euphoria of the buttock-clenching three-run win at Melbourne. The Sex and Drugs and Rock n' Roll tour of New Zealand included possibly the most embarrassing headlines and Test of the decade; defeat by an innings and 132 runs, with England scoring 82 and 93.

After another series loss in Pakistan, the end was nigh for Willis. David Gower, who had first captained England in 1982 – losing to Pakistan at Lord’s – was the next cab off the rank, but he must have been cursing his timing.

The 5-0 blackwash in the summer of 1984 against Clive Lloyd’s touring West Indian team was painful to play in (ask Andy Lloyd and Paul Terry) and watch, with Gower’s declaration at Lord’s bringing particular criticism from many quarters.

The pressure was already mounting. When England failed to beat Sri Lanka at Lord’s and then went behind in India, Gower was on the brink. But England being England promptly shocked everyone by winning the series 2-1, and for a brief period of time, supporting the England Test team was fun.

My timing was obviously better than Gower’s had been twelve months before. Stumbling across Test cricket in the summer of 1985, the 3-1 Ashes win got me hooked (insert Andrew Hilditch joke here). If Test cricket was this good – Soul Limbo, TMS, Richard Ellison – then why had it taken me so long to discover it?

I was na├»ve; following England for the rest of the decade alerted me to this fact. Another blackwash followed in the Caribbean, and Gower was replaced by Mike Gatting after losing the opening Test of the India series at Lord’s in 1986.

At first, things did not get any better for the new man in power. Defeats against India and New Zealand at home, and a tricky start to the Ashes tour of 1986/87 saw Martin Johnson write his famous “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” line about Gatting’s tourists.

Yet there was time for two final acts from Beefy. His 138 at Brisbane set the tone for the series, and his 5/41 at Melbourne, helped England retain the Ashes, with Chris Broad contributing three centuries along the way.

What is the opposite of it’s always darkest before the dawn? If Melbourne 1986 was a sunshine moment, then the rest of the decade was damp and miserable. It would be a full eighteen Tests before England won another match, and in that period the team went through captains at an alarming rate.

It all started to unravel in Faisalabad, after Gatting’s finger-wagging row with umpire Shakoor Rana. From this point, Gatt’s days were numbered. An alleged incident in a hotel room during the Trent Bridge Test of the 1988 series against the West Indies kicked off the silly season.

Four captains in one summer; surely the peak of England’s madness during the 80s? But there was better, or worse, to follow. Gatting’s captaincy was vetoed at the start of the 1989 Ashes series by TCCB Committee Chairman Ossie Wheatley, and Gower was back for more anguish.

The 4-0 defeat to Australia was a sadly appropriate end to the decade, played out under the speculation of another rebel tour taking place, and with England using a staggering 29 players in the series. It set the foundations for what was to follow during the next ten years.

In all, England played 104 Tests during the 1980s, winning just 20. Their streaks without a victory are hard to comprehend in the modern era; 12 matches in 1980/81; 13 in 1983/84; 11 in 1986, including seven straight defeats; one win in 25 after Melbourne 1986.

But I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. When England won the Ashes in 2005, I felt so much better than any of the Johnny-Come-Latelies who all of a sudden wanted to talk to me about cricket.

I’ve always described watching England in my formative years as my favourite waste of time. Most normal people would have given up and gone to do something more interesting instead. But I wasn’t ordinary, even if the team I was following for the majority of the 1980s was.


  1. Thanks for a wonderful article. I feel we took the same journey.

  2. Thanks for the blog. It brings the memories flooding back. I have been following Test cricket since the 70s mainly on TMS and I've been going to the games since 1980. First game vs West Indies at the Oval in 1980. Holding off the long run. Amazing start. The carnival atmosphere made it feel like a home game for WI. But I had an odd experience. I followed cricket intensely from 1980 to 1986/7 as I went to all the Tests in Oz on Gatting's tour. Great stuff. So I was there for the victory in Melbourne. Then I met a Swedish girl in NZ and moved to Sweden and no way to follow cricket so I gave it up until around 2004 ... So you've guessed it. Back in time for 2005, Flintoff and TMS online over the internet.
    Now working on seeing Test cricket in each test playing country.
    Life is great!
    Watching cricket is not a waste of time, it is a recipe for a good life.

  3. Great article. I first started to take tangible interest in Test match cricket in the summer of 1986, so I at least had the delights of the Ashes win in 86-87 and the One Day clean sweep down under to sustain me before the bleak period until Sabina Park in 1990. As awful as 1988 and 89 were, the most frustrating spell was arguably Gatting’s series against Pakistan and New Zealand through 1987 into 1988. It often gets overlooked that under Gatting, England built a number of strong positions in Tests, but whenever they did, it would always end up raining for 2 and a half days or they would be derailed by incidents like the Shakoor Rana affair. However, whenever England were struggling, it would be sunshine and dry skies every time.