Posted by: mattburleigh | February 20, 2015

England, how low can you go?

I can’t remember what time I woke up this morning, but after an early-ish (for me) bed yesterday I fully intended to catch at least the second half of England’s World Cup game against New Zealand. I was too late. England had achieved yet another embarrassing low, to pile on the multitude I’ve been forced to endure over nearly 40 years watching the game. As the morning wore on, this latest humiliation set me thinking: there’s a common thread to these lows. Bare with me, while I recall:

The Abject Lows Of English Cricket During My Lifeime…..

Where shall we start? Being smashed by Lillee and Thomson in ’74/5? Tony Greig’s goad-induced pulverising by the Windies in ’76, the first series I have any vague recollection watching? St Mike Brearly’s lot being thrashed down under by Oz and the Windies in 79/80, as their Packer-banned players returned to duty? No. We may have lost all those series rather humiliatingly, but the opposition were good. There wasn’t really a long-term pattern about it. After all, we won in India in 76/77, won back the Ashes in 77 and were probably the best Test side in the world during the Packer years (77-79).

Perhaps we first have to turn to the ten successive defeats across the two infamous “blackwashes” by the West Indies in 84 and 85/86. It’s true that England were increasing hopeless as defeat piled on defeat. But that Windies side was an outstanding candidate for the best Test team in history. Overall, England weren’t actually a bad side, with a fine collection of batsmen in particular who enjoyed long careers, although they could fairly be accused of a certain lack of professionalism compared to more modern sides. Their performances and alleged behaviour on the preceding 83/84 tour to New Zealand were, well, amateurish… but then again New Zealand had Hadlee at the peak of his powers (they also had the world’s dodgiest umpires, but they didn’t need them, we were that bad). Yet in between those “blackwashes” England went to India in 84/85 and won well, and then thrashed Australia at home in 85. But although I don’t include them on my list, perhaps the “blackwashes” were the start of a descent into the hell of the late ’80s. And so, for my first abject low, I choose:

1) The Parable of Botham’s Joint (summer of 1986)

Ian Botham was my hero. He was a superman who reduced the hardest Australians to gibbering wrecks. He was the darling of the tabloids and the most familiar sportsman in the land. No premier league back then of course, hooliganism was rife, the England football team were hopeless (hmm, poor argument, they still are), and cricket was live on the Beeb all summer. But by 1986 Botham had several problems. Put simply, he was getting fat (well, older), and wasn’t the bowler he was from 77-82. Like Flintoff and Pieterson after him, there was also an unreasonable expectation that he could turn on the heroic taps of 81 on a whim. He couldn’t, of course, and especially against the West Indies. Botham never performed at the same level against them, and given how good they were, that shouldn’t really be a significant black mark on his record. No one else did particularly well either. We hailed Alan Lamb’s hundreds, but they were always for the losing side.

None-the-less, English cricket needed a scapegoat for the “blackwashes”. Heavens, we’d lost 10-0 against a bunch of players who weren’t even allowed to captain their own team until the 1950s, and someone was damn well going to be made an example of. Botham would do fine. After all, the man was clearly getting too big for his boots. He had a flamboyant agent angling after Hollywood acting contracts. He had streaks dyed in his mullet haircut. He was rumoured to have had far too much extra-curricular fun on tour in the Caribbean. He was a tabloid celebrity, and they don’t take kindly to those in the MCC Committee Room, don’t you know. Every time he went out to bat he seemed more interested in slogging sixes into Richie’s confectionary stall, than getting his head down like a true Englishman. It was time to teach the man a lesson.

The opportunity came when he admitted smoking cannabis in a tabloid interview. On cue, the Establishment reacted in horror, closely followed by the English public in one of their periodic bouts of moral superiority. Botham got a two month ban. While he was otherwise engaged, England managed to lose a 3 Test series to India 2-0, in the process taking their losing streak to 7 successive matches, and go 1-0 down to New Zealand in their 8th defeat in 10 Tests.

Teaching Botham a lesson clearly worked, then. All it really did was deny cricket-mad youngsters like me a summer watching our hero, while England plumbed new depths, all to satisfy the snobbish blood-lust of the Establishment and the conservative reactionaries that sadly and disproportionately infest and control English cricket (a theme I shall return to).

Botham, of course, returned at The Oval with a wicket first ball and Lillee’s world record for most Test wickets a few balls later. In November, the second coming of the spirit of ’81 continued as he smashed Merv Hughes and co all over the Gabba for an Ashes-defining hundred. And then that was it, save for an Indian summer at the ’92 World Cup. Sky Sports are currently repeating on loop his one man demolition of Australia at Sydney in that tournament. I guffawed then and you too can still guffaw at his slow-medium half volleys laying waste to the petrified Aussie middle order.

You can see where I’m going with this. For Botham then, read KP now. There’s not much in sport to match English cricket cutting off its nose to spite its face, and then insisting until Hell freezes over that it was right all along, despite all evidence to the contrary.

[You’ll have to wait for my next candidates for Lowest Low Ever, I’ve got work to get back to. But it’s been fun….]

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