After the Stanford shambles, England will return to proper cricket this week when they travel to India for a Test tour.
But when it comes to a shambles – a 24-carat shambles – an England tour of India has a precedent.
During any Test series it is important to get your selection right. The tougher the series, the more important that selection becomes.
Any tour of India is tough – so Geoff Miller, Ashley Giles and co need to make correct decisions over the coming weeks. At least they cannot possibly make a bigger porridge of it than their predecessors did back in 1993.
Now, those guys made history. The entire tour was a mess. England became the first team ever whitewashed in a Test series in India – then promptly sustained their first Test defeat to Sri Lanka.
Under chief executive AC Smith, chairman of selectors Ted Dexter, tour manager Bob Bennett, team manager Keith Fletcher and captain Graham Gooch, the tour was a succession of errors and excuses tied together with ineptitude. It was an embarrassment from before the beginning to after the end – but the first Test put all the bumbling into a nutshell.
The seeds of the shambles were sown long before that Test. David Gower, whose left-handedness, never mind his quality, would surely be valuable against the inevitable spin onslaught, was left out. Gooch did not like him, of course, but the reason given was, laughably, that, at 35, he was too old. Unlike Gooch, 39, Mike Gatting, 35, or John Emburey, 40.
Meanwhile, Jack Russell. the best wicket-keeper in England by a mile, was not selected. Alec Stewart, high-class batsman but half a wicket-keeper, and Richard Blakey, average in both departments, would share ’keeping duties. So Russell and Gower, two of England’s few world-class players, were not picked. A nation’s cricket supporters were incredulous.
Fletcher, meanwhile, returned from scouting in South Africa with encouraging words about Anil Kumble. “I didn’t see him turn a single ball from leg to off,” he confided. “I don’t believe we will have much problem with him.”
Now, firstly, how can somebody watch Kumble bowl and think that? Secondly, if you do think it, surely it is better to keep that thought private. Arrogance is never endearing – least of all when you have precious little to be arrogant about.
Kumble duly took 21 wickets in the series. England’s leading wicket-taker, with eight, was ... Graeme Hick!
Anyway, that first Test. At Eden Gardens, the pitch was exactly as expected. Dry, bare and sure to take spin. Faced with these circumstances, England’s brains trust came up with what remains the most inexplicable team-selection in cricket history. They left out both front-line spinners.
Fletcher and Co plumped for a four-pronged pace battery. West Indies often did this to good effect and had just dismantled Australia by an innings courtesy of Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Anderson Cummins. But the quartet that England had in mind were Devon Malcolm, Paul Jarvis, Chris Lewis and Paul Taylor.
Spin back-up came from Ian Salisbury, out of match practice having been hastily promoted from his role as net bowler because senior twirlers Phil Tufnell and Emburey had bowled poorly in the warm-up games. And Hick.
Mohammad Azharuddin duly piled up 182 in India’s first innings. England replied with 163 and then managed to avoid an innings defeat but set their hosts a target of just 79 and lost by eight wickets. Hick finished with five for 28 in the match. The four seamers shared six for 321. Shambles.
And so it went on. In Madras and Bombay, England lost by an innings. In Columbo, they lost by five wickets. But the best – or worst – was still to come. The inquest.
The Test and County Cricket Board reflected long and hard on the causes of such a shocking sequence of defeats. Dexter announced that a report had been commissioned into pollution-levels in Indian cities. England’s players had felt poorly. Ah – the fumes. So that’s why they were so dire.
But the far-reaching, ruthless and unsparing self-investigation did not finish there. They got down to the real nitty gritty.
“There is a modern fashion for designer stubble,” revealed Dexter, “And some people believe it to be very attractive. But it is aggravating to others and we will be looking at the whole question of people’s facial hair.”
Hmm. Didn’t seem to do ‘W.G’ much harm did it?