Regularly, we are told England were a hopeless team in the 1990s. Throughout that decade the team's fortunes were at the lowest ebb in our 139-year Test history. Ask near enough any England supporter - whether they remember most of the Test-series' or not - of the 1990s and the same morbid, gloomy responses will come 99 times out of 100.
Yet how much of this really rings true? Certainly in the 2nd half of the 1980s England were not crash-hot. After 1985, when an average Australian team was comfortably vanquished, David Gower took his team to West Indies... and a blackwash resulted. All 5 Tests were lost, mostly with West Indies rarely less than dominant. The following summer, Mike Gatting led his team to defeats in 3-Test-series to first New Zealand, then India. Even if the New Zealand defeat was not the biggest of disgraces, as the Kiwis had perhaps the strongest team of their chequered history, India have not won a series outside the subcontinent since then, and up to 2001 had not won even a single Test. However, the falling debris was swept under the carpet as The Ashes were retained in Australia, with the Aussies perhaps even weaker than in 1985. However, Pakistan - first at home in one of the wetter summers of 1987, then away in 1987\88 - proved too strong. It was not merely the defeats - the Faisalabad Test produced one of the darker moments of cricket's history in Gatting's face-off with Umpire Shakoor Rana. Finally, the inevitable crisis happened. England were again hammered by the maroon-caps, managing at least to draw one Test this time, and were led by John Emburey, Chris Cowdrey (who was not by any accounts a fixture in the side and whose appointment led to accusations of family bias - CoS Peter May was Cowdrey's Godfather) and Graham Gooch after Gatting was notoriously sacked for "sexual misconduct" after the First Test. Captaincy merry-go-rounds were followed by merry-go-rounds in the ranks the following summer, when England were again hammered 4-0, this time by a much-improved Australia - led by two men (Allan Border with bat and Terry Alderman with ball) with somewhat differing points to prove. England managed to get through 29 players in the summer, and Gower's captaincy failed to come close to evoking memories of 4 years previously.
It would not be difficult to argue that the close of this series, in fact, provided the bottom-most nadir in the history of the Three Lions. England had lost 7 series out of 8, almost all in dismal fashion. Had there been Rankings or a Championship for Test-cricket - as there was a decade later - England would almost certainly have been bottom, save maybe for the Sri Lankans. As if this was not bad enough, during the Ashes debacle, another breaking-of-ranks had been announced as players again shamed the game by putting personal financial gain above morality and decency to tour South Africa under a repugnant political regime. Gower's captaincy had, not without justification, been terminated and Gooch, forgiven for his own forays into South Africa 5 years previously, was appointed. A decidedly experimental party was taken to the Caribbean, with barely an experienced face aside from the captain, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Gladstone Small.
As it turned-out, however, the prospect of men-against-boys not merely failed to materialise but, for the first half of the series (a five-Test rubber was turned into a four when the Second Test was totally washed-out) was completely turned on it's head. England won the First Test emphatically (the first victory over West Indies for 16 years) with heroic performances from Fraser, Small, Malcolm, Lamb and Smith. Little changed in the Second Test and at Lunch on the final day it seemed near enough certain that England would go 2-0 up with 2 to play.
Then the heavens opened, the target became daunting and one which proved just out of reach, and the situation was reversed at Fortress Bridgetown - but this time West Indies managed to beat the onset of darkness and bowl England out to level the series. An innings-defeat followed at St.John's, and a series which could so easily have ended 1-2 in England's favour and provided one of the greatest sporting upsets of all-time, in fact ended as an expected home victory.
Not that England were disheartened. The following summer, one of prolific run-scoring, saw Gooch embark on the start of a wholly astonishing run of form and as a result ensure his team barely looked like losing a match. They also bowled well enough to force a win against both opponents and win both series. After a premature introduction in the chaos of the previous summer, Michael Atherton settled in exceedingly well and formed a formidable opening combination with his captain.
Quite why England performed so poorly in Australia the following winter (a 3-0 defeat, losing the First and Second Tests after taking first-innings leads and being denied victory in the Third by allowing the last 4 to survive 200 deliveries) is something of a mystery, given that the squad was little different from that which visited West Indies and all-but won. West Indies, after all, played Australia after this Ashes and battered them into submission, in a series which famously evoked in Stephen Waugh the desire which made him into the best batsman of the ensuing decade. However, unlike the following three Ashes tours, there were no large-scale injury problems, and thanks to the steady hand of Gooch and coach Micky Stewart the party did not descend into chaos.
And the following summer England managed to come close to securing some justice by deservedly avoiding defeat against West Indies for the first time in 17 years. Gooch's innings at Headingley, which put his side 1-0 up, was without doubt one of the finest ever played by an Englishman.
He then led his side comfortably to a 2-0 victory in New Zealand in probably the least memorable series of the decade. A much tougher challenge awaited the following summer - Pakistan, and specifically The Two Ws.
England did lose that series 2-1, going down to a heavy defeat at The Oval. Yet they could so easily have been leading 2-0 going into it. Only a wholly unexpected partnership - with the bat - between Wasim and Waqar (adding 33 for the 8th-wicket from 95-8 to allow their side to escape with a victory) in the Second Test turned defeat into victory; England won comfortably in the Fourth, and the other two never looked like anything other than draws.
That defeat at The Oval, however, was the beginning of the end for Gooch. While his batting boom continued for another year, he led his team to India where mismanagement and bungling dominated, though did not necessarily contribute to, a 3-0 loss. Gooch then skipped the single Test against Sri Lanka, which was also lost. And the following summer, Merv Hughes and Shane Warne backed-up Australia's formidable battery of run-getters - every bit as strong as in 1989 - so that even the loss of Craig McDermott after The First Test made little difference. Gooch eventually gave-up the captaincy after defeat at Headingley confirmed The Ashes were gone again. Atherton took-over and immediately presided over another large defeat at Edgbaston.
At The Oval, however, England dominated - it had been 8 years almost to the day since The Oval 1985 and Gooch and Gower's massive stand - and for most of the match they never looked like failing to win. Atherton was able to look ahead with confidence to the tour of West Indies, where Gooch had already indicated he had no intention of going. He and the coach Keith Fletcher had almost complete control over their squad and elected to take another young party, as 4 years previously. However, this time the series followed precisely the opposite pattern. West Indies utterly dominated the first two Tests, winning both by massive margins. England fought back and were perhaps within a dropped catch - Graeme Hick off Shivnarine Chanderpaul on the fourth morning - of a 2-2 draw. As it was, they collapsed in the face of a still attainable target (194) and the remarkable storming-of-the-fortress in Bridgetown was foredoomed to be aught but a dead-rubber consolation. As for the last Test, it will be remembered only for Brian Lara's genius on a supine pitch, one which was never going to produce a result in 7 days, never mind 5. A 3-1 loss, however, could so, so easily have been a 2-2 draw.
New Zealand again provided their usual role as sacrificial lambs to England's slaughter in the first half of 1994, with a 1-0 victory which had shades of 1990. England's single victory was emphatic and the other 2 games were drawn. It is true that New Zealand were within 2 wickets of victory in the Second game, but they were saved in the Third by a big sixth-wicket stand. While 2-1 might have been a fairer result, 1-0 wasn't enormously different.
South Africa, however, provided an altogether sterner challenge. Not only did their bowlers annihilate England at Lord's, their batsmen stuck around well enough to cause England to turn to some reverse-swing from Darren Gough. This caused a large-scale misunderstanding which led to one of the most grotesque episodes in England-captaincy history, to rival even the misdemeanours of Jardine and Gatting's twin slip-ups. Atherton was widely vilified for apparent ball-tampering, not least by his own country's press. He rode the storm admirably well, enabled England to have the better of a comfortable draw at Headingley and to level the series with one of the most sensational second-innings performances ever - Devon Malcolm's 9-57 followed by a run-chase of 205 off 35 overs.
Another Ashes tour followed, and the early script was little different from 1990\91. This time, however, an astonishing, near-unending run of injuries accompanied heavy defeats at Brisbane and Melbourne, and continued throughout the tour. Yet England still managed to dominate the Sydney game, which they might have won but for bad light and an impromptu declaration which disheartened the team, and then to win an incredible victory at Adelaide with the only 11 fit players they had left. In the end the Fifth Test in Perth was lost emphatically, though the result might have been different but for a glut of spurned chances. A 3-1 defeat was not an altogether unfair result, but a near-unthinkable 2-3 England victory was much more of a possibility than face-value might have suggested.
With the visit of West Indies in 1995 came the Test-debut of Dominic Cork, and his influence virtually single-handedly allowed England to come from behind at Lord's. Again they fell behind, and again they came back, at Old Trafford. Neither win was without nerves, whereas West Indies' victories at Headingley and Edgbaston were emphatic, and neither of the last two games at Trent Bridge or The Oval looked like having a result. While the West Indians had been marginally the better side, the draw was not as much of an injustice as the English defeats in 1989\90 and 1993\94.
England's inaugural post-Apartheid South African tour was for the most part dominated by the home team. Michael Atherton, playing a magnificent innings, possibly the greatest rearguard in Test history, saved the day at The Wanderers, and rain did the job at Kingsmead. Centurion was a virtual non-starter and Port Elizabeth a high-scoring draw. Despite this, England could easily have won the deciding Test, at Newlands on a ropy batting wicket, but for an insipid spell with the second new-ball. As it was, the game and the series was lost.
The summer of 1996 started with an uneventful, and high-scoring, 1-0 victory over India that mirrored 1990 in plenty of ways (the only difference being England's well-earned First Test victory was at Edgbaston rather than Lord's). Pakistan then arrived and rarely looked troubled in winning two games by large margins and drawing one. Along with The Ashes in 1990\91 and 1993, and the subcontinental tour of 1992\93, this was a rare hopeless performance.
However, if it was thought that things couldn't get worse, they categorically could. For the series in Zimbabwe England travelled as overwhelming favourites. They might indeed have won but for rain and a single run, but coach David Lloyd's "we flippin' murdered 'em" comment was ill-judged and had a dim view taken of it by most places outside the England dressing-room. Atherton's inability to buy a run, on a rare occasion his chronic back condition affected his play, was another disheartening trait.
However, when the team reached New Zealand, most of the wrongs were righted - England were within an extraordinarily long last-wicket stand of winning 3-0, Atherton's form returned, and for the first time since 1985 an Ashes could be looked forward to with confidence.
And so it proved as England reduced Australia to 65-8 at the commencement of the series. While the tail fought back to an extent, an enormous stand between Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe put England in a near-unassailable position and the match was duly won. Though Australia came back strongly at Lord's rain forced a draw and victory was becoming something achievable.
It is possible that had Stephen Waugh been given lbw 1st ball in the first-innings at Old Trafford and Matthew Elliott been caught by Thorpe on 1 at Headingley Australia might still have won both Tests. Yet both were given the chance to produce innings which effectively decided the matches. At Trent Bridge England had no answer and The Ashes were gone again. A hard-fought, wafer-thin victory at The Oval was little more than a glossy postscript.
England again travelled to West Indies in early 1998, under a now-reluctant Atherton. After the highly embarrassing abandonment of the First Test in Jamaica due to an unquestionably dangerous pitch, England played two at Trinidad and lost the Second (which they should have won) then won the Third (which they should have lost). At Guyana, the toss decided the match, on a pitch which crumbled to dust after the second-day. Atherton duly lost the toss. England achieved a commanding position at Barbados only to see rain ruin any chance of a result. At Antigua England never looked like winning, but a draw was all but assured, until a wholly unnecessary mix-up between Hussain and Thorpe produced a collapse to defeat. A series which England might well have won 1-3 ended-up being lost 3-1.
When Atherton finally resigned after the West Indies series, Alec Stewart replaced him for the home series against South Africa. England dominated at Edgbaston and would most likely have won but for a last-day washout. South Africa came back strongly at Lord's and won comfortably. The same and worse might well have happened at Old Trafford but for an astonishing partnership between Atherton and Stewart and end-of-game heroics from Robert Croft, Darren Gough and Angus Fraser. South Africa's one-Test lead felt about right - it should have been 1-2 but it somehow remained 0-1. And two of the most uplifting performances for many years saw two tenaciously fought Tests at Trent Bridge and Headingley go England's way - not without help from poor Umpiring - and the series was won. Sadly, a one-off Test at The Oval saw Sri Lanka comprehensively outplay England on a terribly-prepared pitch that couldn't have suited the Sri Lankans better. England travelled to The Ashes on the back of defeat again.
At Brisbane Australia dominated most of the game - though things might have been different but for another glut of spurned chances. As it was, though, rain saved England. At Perth Australia were on top from the start until the middle of the second-day but England might well have stolen the game if they had managed just another 60 or 70 second-innings runs, something which was not looking at all impossible at one stage. At Adelaide a toss almost as crucial as Guyana the previous winter again went against England and a defeat - though for much of the match they fought manfully - was unavoidable. At Melbourne, England did manage to snatch the game from the fire as they had been unable to in Perth, thanks to a miraculous spell by Dean Headley. At Sydney, however, another lost toss proved crucial and put Australia in a position of strength which they never, quite, relinquished. A 3-1 loss could have been 5-0, or it could have been much closer.
England's final series to conclude in the 1990s saw New Zealand visit. After they dominated much of the First Test at Edgbaston an extraordinarily unlikely innings by Alex Tudor meant England in the end won comfortably. Again the start was squandered at Lord's, where an inaccurate weather-forecast proved crucial - the team fielding first was always a near-certainty in the conditions which eventually prevailed. New Zealand categorically dominated again at Old Trafford, where unpredictable weather again played it's perverse part in proceedings - a poor pitch was expected to get worse and was in fact cooked to perfection. Had England fielded first twice - on both occasions they chose to bat based on seemingly reliable information - they might have been 3-0 up. Rain did save them at Old Trafford, and meant that The Oval was a decider. In that Test the single most crucial aspect was England's inability to polish-off the tail - in New Zealand's first-innings the vital runs came from number-ten and in the second from number-eight. In only minutely different circumstances, either side might have won 4-0. As it was, England were relegated to the bottom of the Wisden Test Championship and repeat-1882 headlines were printed. The series defeat could not be called an unfair one, for New Zealand had unquestionably been the better side (and a much better one than most people suspected at the start of the summer), but in common with many defeats in the decade things could have been much more different than face-value suggested.
One of the biggest factors in this was that, from 1992\93 onwards, England could barely take a trick in ODIs, at least away from home. Too often the ODIs clouded the Test-match picture. Between 1992\93 and 1999 England were a largely hopeless ODI side, and as heavy ODI defeats regularly ended a tour that had featured narrow Test-match defeats a much, much more hopeless picture ended-up being painted than the situation truly merited. At home, the ODIs only rarely contributed to a positive end-of-summer feeling – the attitude of the day meant that series at the beginning of the summer would be all but forgotten by the end, and only in 1990, 1994 and 1996 were series played at the end – in 1990 England lost and in 1996 victory followed Test defeat.
Overall, the memories of the 1990s as being a time of mishap for England are based on face-value assumptions and misunderstanding rather than real cricketing fact. England's true nadir was the second half of the 1980s, and since 1990 things had been bubbling under, waiting only for the pieces - which were nearly always all there - to fall into place. With the appointment of Duncan Fletcher, and to a much lesser extent the arrival of central-contracts, those pieces almost instantly fell into place and remained there. Let us hope the loss in Pakistan in 2005\06 - easily the sloppiest performance under the current coach's tenure - was merely a blip.