In June 2004 at Trent Bridge, Graham Thorpe completed a thrilling Test-match by hitting the runs that brought England victory in the match, and with it a 3-0 series whitewash of New Zealand. Before this series, and after England's triumphant 3-0 win in The Caribbean, it was widely agreed that this series would be a true test of how far England had come in recent months. The three victories in West Indies had been achieved by massive margins, with the opposition batting - of high repute - rarely less than atrocious. So when that Caribbean triumph was followed by this whitewash (and the close-to-inevitable home whitewash over West Indies that followed), England had passed the test with flying colours.
But exactly how acid a test was it? In bare terms, New Zealand's Test record coming into the tour had been excellent - they had lost just a single Test-series since December 2000, and hadn't been whitewashed in - well, as long as this correspondent can remember. That record, though, is like many things in cricket - actually rather deceptive if you look at it in detail rather than skim the surface.
It would be neatest, perhaps, to start with the resounding triumph in England in 1999 - a side packed with largely unheralded stars such as captain Fleming, Cairns, Allott, Nash, Horne, Astle, Vettori and McMillan (whatever complaints there may be that his success has mostly come easy, and many of them are entirely valid complaints, the fact is McMillan has generally done very well against England in Test-match cricket) which England were wholly unwise to underestimate. This was a strong side (as was the one that, earlier in the summer, pushed their way to the World Cup semis), and they then travelled to India in high spirits, though with no-one doubting the severity of the task at hand - India had not been beaten in a home series for 12 years.
It was indeed the case that they were defeated in that series - but 1-0 was a respectable result and did not dampen the air of optimism in Kiwi cricket. They duly returned home and thrashed West Indies 2-0. If hindsight reveals how that triumph was really little more than to-be-expected, at the time West Indies' horrible away form was just starting and it was a very pleasing result.
The subsequent visit of the Australians produced three defeats - something there is not an enormous amount of shame in, given that on 13 other occasions either side of this series the same Australian team inflicted defeats on 5 other sides. Australia were on the rampage and no-one and nothing could stop them - well, except a tour of the subcontinent (the rush had started after a tour of Sri Lanka, and finished - famously - during a series in India).
After a long break during the winter, New Zealand travelled to Zimbabwe. If failure at home to Australia was not something that could reasonably induce too much scorn, this 2-0 success was at the opposite end of the spectrum. While Zimbabwe were considerably stronger than they have been since the fallout after World Cup 2003, they were still the weakest of the 9 Test nations (Bangladesh were to be added barely a month later) and any serious Test side would be expected to beat them.
That series, however, started a pattern in Kiwi cricket that is still very much in evidence at the present time. After Zimbabwe, they won the Champions Trophy then travelled to South Africa. During these 3 months, the number of injuries they suffered was scarcely believable. Most of their first-choice squad suffered at some point, and the always-likely prospect of a defeat to the very strong South Africans became something of an inevitability. Significantly, though, they avoided a whitewash thanks to three days of rain in Johannesburg. This is worth remembering, as but for this rain a third defeat was looking something close to certain.
After this injury-ravaged tour of Southern Africa, New Zealand wasted their time playing a Test against Zimbabwe on a pitch described in Wisden as "useless". It was a fitting end to one-off Tests - this was the last before ICC abolished them in order to avoid these "drawn series" of single Tests that can have little meaning. Not content with this, though, the New Zealand authorities produced a similar (though drop-in) pitch for one of the subsequent Tests of a home series against Pakistan. Not surprisingly, 19 wickets fell in a game about as dreary as any Test-cricket has produced.
In the two meaningful games of that series, Pakistani cricket was summed-up. Once, they hammered New Zealand in a display of ruthless efficiency that showcased many of their exceptional talents. In the other, they produced such an inept display that New Zealand would have struggled to avoid victory with a third-string side. Like so many series against Pakistan, this didn't show anything other than how they can go from one extreme to the other in the twinkling of an eye.
After another long break, New Zealand embarked on a much-anticipated tour of Australia. The Australians had just thrashed an injury-ravaged England side that had endured the customary attack of butter-fingers that has accompanied most recent Ashes series. A big task was on-hand. Captain Fleming, though, was quietly assured that his side were equipped for the task.
The first two Tests produced a familiar pattern. New Zealand neutralised Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne with effectiveness that bordered on the frightening. However, in both games their cause was helped by large amounts of rain. Delightful as it was to see Australia matched, there have been countless times during the last 10 years when we have seen teams hold their own for much of a game, then collapse at crucial times and hand the Australians back the initiative; they then go on to claim victory. This time, the weather denied them the chance. Both games were drawn.
The final Test produced an outcome that could, without too much exaggeration, be described as sensational. New Zealand dominated almost from-the-word-go, and only a 99 from Warne saved Australia from following-on. They might well have lost anyway, but for the Kiwis being denied two wickets by poor decisions from Ian Robinson in the final session. New Zealand's inspiration in this match, however, was Lou Vincent, a hitherto little-known Auckland batsman who opened and scored 158 in 2 innings. Hindsight has suggested that this is likely to remain the highlight of his career. This match, much as all outside Australia enjoyed it, could fairly be described as a one-off.
New Zealand's next "Test" series was against Bangladesh. Like all sensible cricket followers, we shall ignore it.
When England made the return tour later that summer, New Zealand were again savaged by injuries. England really should have won that series; they took the lead with a victory that would have been considerably larger but for one of the all-time great innings by Nathan Astle, could quite possibly have won The Second Test but for a lot of time lost to rain, and lost the twisting, turning Third by virtue of New Zealand sneaking into an unassailable position almost unnoticed. One crucial Umpiring error played a huge part in that game, too; had Venkat given Chris Harris out when he gloved to short-leg in the first-innings, England could easily have won the game. It would be wholly unfair to speculate on what impact on both teams was caused by the tragedy of Ben Hollioake's death in the middle of the series.
Still savaged by injury, New Zealand travelled to Pakistan. This time, they found them in remorseless form. They had inflicted upon them one of the biggest Test defeats of all-time in The First Test and would almost certainly have lost The Second, probably by a wide margin, but for a terrifying bomb blast near their hotel hours before the start. The abandonment of the tour was wholly understandable, but nonetheless it let them off the hook in that it almost certainly meant they avoided a crushing series defeat.
After this, New Zealand travelled to West Indies. Here came Shane Bond's finest hour, one that contributed to his overrated status in Test-cricket. He played a huge part in winning The First Test; The Second, on a very flat pitch, was drawn and New Zealand walked away with the spoils. Something of a smash-and-grab, and while credible in that beating West Indies in The Caribbean was still not an everyday occurrence, it didn't say too much about their ability to chisel-out longer series on pitches offering something to the bowlers.
Their next series produced some of the more extraordinary Test-cricket of recent years. When playing India, it does not take rocket-science to work-out that the best bet is to play on green seamers. While NZC did not deserve the opprobrium heaped on them for the pitches they prepared, nonetheless beating India 2-0 in such conditions was not an especially extraordinary achievement. If England had had the same sense, maybe they would have won their recent series against India, instead of drawing it 1-1.
After The World Cup, New Zealand travelled to Sri Lanka, then to India. Tours of the subcontinent; a place where the touring side is invariably tested on their ability against spin. Well, nearly invariably. In 4 Test-matches, New Zealand were confronted with a turning pitch once, and would almost certainly have lost that match but for a quarter of it being washed-out. Instead, they came away from the subcontinent with 4 draws, and a reputation that was just a little inflated. There had not, in fact, been the assumed evidence that their batsmen were all of a sudden comfortable with the ball turning.
New Zealand then had two home series, against Pakistan and South Africa. After another flat-pitch draw in The First against Pakistan - something you might recognise is becoming a bit of a pattern - Shoaib Akhtar demolished them on a pitch that barely offered anything more in The Second, and Pakistan had inflicted a similar smash-and-grab on New Zealand that they had on West Indies 18 months earlier. South Africa's visit started with another flat-pitch draw, then they managed to collapse on a wicket that barely offered anything more second time, and though they managed to save themselves by winning the final game (on a pitch that turned more than most that New Zealand had recently encountered, and in which Nicky Boje caused them problems) it was another credible draw against relatively strong opposition for New Zealand.
So, they entered the series against England with a high reputation; it was expected that they would give England a really testing time. Yet several bowlers had rather flattering averages that weren't likely to apply on the flat wicket at Lord's, Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram to the fore. They also had one bowler whose most recent series was against South Africa (Chris Martin). This bowler has always performed against South Africa, and never has against anyone else. Scoring runs was never actually likely to be too much of a problem for England. And while they did well to bowl New Zealand out twice, no team can manage to turn every flat pitch they play on into a draw. In a poor summer, meanwhile, there was very little interruption to any of the games. Having several competent seam-bowlers and one spinner who, in the likely event that most people haven't noticed, is actually a World-class performer on a turning wicket meant that bowling them out was always perfectly possible in the Second and Third Tests, given that their batsmen's pedigree in when the ball is seaming and turning was not quite what it was assumed to be. New Zealand were very unfortunate in that Oram couldn't bowl on the one pitch of the series which would have suited him (Headingley) and Vettori on the one that would have suited him (Trent Bridge). So there went their best chances of striking even, given that they had few bowlers available besides who could exploit seaming and turning conditions. Beating them here wasn't quite such an achievement as it was hyped-up to be. England's only real achievement of note in this series was turning the best bet at Lord's - the draw - into a victory. Some had expected this series to end with England being put in their place. Instead, New Zealand suffered that fate.
This article recently appeared... guess where?
Yes, I admit, it was conceived having read wpdavid's "So How Good Is This England Side?" feature .
And before anyone says anything, it was written before the recent Australia series. And before the Bangladesh one, in fact.
Be interested to get some f\b.