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16 May 2016

Why was English cricket so terrible in the Nineties – and why does it matter now?

Following On: a Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket by Emma John takes us back to the era of Atherton.

By Tim Wigmore

The summer of 1999 was meant to be a breakout moment for English cricket: the first time in 16 years that the nation had hosted the World Cup and, with no big ­international football tournament running, the perfect opportunity for the sport to captivate a wider public. But the official World Cup song wasn’t released until the day after England were bundled out of the competition – and all before May was out.

By summer’s end, England had lost the Test series to New Zealand and were ranked the worst Test nation in the world, prompting the Sun to publish a front-page piece mourning the death of English cricket. A few months later, England slipped to two for four in the first innings of their first Test match against South Africa, on their way to losing the series. It was an appropriate way to end a decade of cricketing ignominy.

And yet many feel a curious nostalgia for the Nineties, the era of Michael Atherton’s stoicism, team selections that felt like pick’n’mix, and heroic failures. Twenty20 cricket had not been invented. It was, at least in our minds, a more innocent age.

Certainly it was so for Emma John: this team was not merely England but “my England”. John, now the deputy editor of the Observer Magazine, spent her teenage years infatuated with the England team and especially with Atherton, their boyish captain. Following On is partly a personal memoir of growing up, partly a recollection of English cricket in the inglorious Nineties, and partly an account of the personalities involved and what happened to them next.

John met and interviewed 11 players of the Nineties for her book, a full team’s worth. She recounts their story with wit, warmth and perceptiveness. Along the way, we see her maturing – and learn how cricket sustained her through adolescence, university (she went to Downing College, Cambridge, applying because it was Atherton’s old college), the uncertainties of her early twenties and beyond.

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The England team were a faithful companion, just not a very successful one. Between the spring of 1993, when the 14-year-old Emma’s obsession began with the arrival in Britain of Allan Border’s Australians, and 2000 England won just 17 out of their 78 Test matches. Even a good deal of the most memorable victories “arrived, like messengers in a Greek tragedy, just too late to prevent a bloody annihilation” – when a series had already been lost.

Yet the disappointments only made her feel more protective about the team. John and her mum, from whom she got her love for cricket, moan copiously about selections and the side’s form, but she becomes defensive when those less invested with the team do the same. Fandom is curious like that.

Between the slices of nostalgia, the central question the book poses is just why England performed so badly in that decade. One answer is that they didn’t: the quality of Test cricket has never been stronger than it was in the Nineties. A glance at the opening attacks Atherton had to face – Wasim and Waqar, Donald and Pollock, Ambrose and Walsh, McGrath and Gillespie – attests to the superb standard of the game around the globe. England’s performance must be understood in this context. Indeed, the fast bowler Andy Caddick goes so far as to say that a Nineties England side would beat today’s vintage hands down, 5-0.

But England also suffered from self-inflicted troubles. This was an age that lacked a cohesive team structure, when cricketers arrived to play burnt out from county duty. “We’d be playing on a Monday for Middlesex, we’d bowl 40 overs, get in a car, drive up to Old Trafford, lose the toss and be bowling against Australia on Thursday,” says Phil Tufnell, the erratic spinner who was by turns ebullient and lethargic. “We’d be absolutely shagged out.”

The main aim was self-preservation. Haphazard and temperamental selection policies – 28 players played five Tests or fewer in the decade; the great batting hope Graeme Hick, who played from 1991 to 2001, was dropped 11 times in his career – left players perpetually worried about preserving their place in the team. “You’re playing every game to stay in the next one,” reflects Graham Thorpe, who went on to enjoy a stellar, 100-Test career. “When blokes who have done well in their first couple of Test matches say, ‘It’s all for the team,’ it’s not, really. That beginning is all about you.”

It was symptomatic of a deeper flaw: a system that regarded the players as county cricketers who were sometimes detained by England, not international players whose domestic matches were fitted in around what was best for their country. The mentality began to change in 2000, when central contracts were introduced for England’s elite players. It was a reform that Atherton had long campaigned for, but by now he had resigned as captain, a moment that leads John to spend days moping around the house, drinking tea and eating ice cream.

So there is a certain poignancy to her meeting with Atherton at the end of the book: it’s simultaneously “the person I most want to sit down with” and “the meeting I dread”. In the days before their interview, Atherton haunts her dreams. She arrives at their lunch searching in vain for “some kind of validation from the person I’ve put on a pedestal for most of my life” and leaves realising that it is impossible. They do say it’s best never to meet your heroes.

The very writing of this book invites the question: why did English cricket in the Nineties seem more visible and important to the country at large than it does today, when the national side is so much more successful? It’s a reminder that, for all their arduous struggles, the class of the Nineties had one huge advantage over today’s crop: all of their home Tests were shown on free-to-view television.

Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket by Emma John is published by Bloomsbury (272pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump