Punching an opponent in a bar, last-minute replacement of the coach, a polarised dressing room, injuries, selection puzzles, batsmen bailed out by tailenders, DRS confusion, heavy defeat.. the components of a squad spiraling towards defeat are there. Friday at Lord’s – a demonstration of village cricket that lasted two sessions – has been the on-field nadir.
But the ‘most chaotic Ashes campaign’ tag starting to be applied is inappropriate for two reasons: the series is still live and there is some fearfully strong competition from the recent past. Here are three nominations.
2002/03 – England
Australia’s retention of the Ashes was decided by 1 December, after just 11 days of cricket. Casualties started a month before England headed to Heathrow. Graham Thorpe pulled out of the tour for personal reasons. Darren Gough made the trip, but never made it onto the field of play. Flintoff travelled too – to rehab and home. Simon Jones played the first of the 11 live days of Test cricket when he suffered the career-threatening knee injury. Five of the other first choice squad incurred injuries that left them unavailable for Test matches. Amongst those called-up to plug the gaps, Silverwood, White, Tudor and Snape were all injured. Jeremy Snape broke his thumb facing his first ball of his first match with the tourists.
The gap between the two teams was set on day 1 of the first Test – when Hussain put the Australians into bat and they reached stumps on 364-2. Victories by hundreds of runs or by an innings followed as Australia motored to scores above 400 and dismissed England with pace, spin and accuracy. England didn’t win a match until their 14th of the tour and the first when the opponents were not Australian (Sri Lanka in an ODI).
1994/95 – England
England, with an upset at Adelaide, took this series to the final match. But there had been chaos along the way. Injuries again ravaged the first choice squad. Six replacements were summoned and the team physio, called upon to be a substitute fielder in a match, broke a finger taking some practice catches. Alec Stewart had three separate fractures to fingers. Phil Tufnell was deemed unwell enough to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, from which he discharged himself the same day. The team for the fourth test at Adelaide picked itself, comprising the only eleven fit players.
Captain Atherton felt hamstrung by the squad selected by Ray Illingworth, Chairman of Selectors. Evidence of ill-will was found in comments made by the Chairman at home in England and used by the media in Australia to bait Atherton.
The image Atherton uses to introduce this series in his autobiography is telling: he and Angus Fraser sharing a box while batting together in the fifth Test at Perth.
1989 – England
England were clear favourites ahead of the series. They lost 4-0, picking 29 players (13 making a single appearance) as the selectors cast around for players with form and fitness. A different pair of opening bowlers played in each Test. And there was deeper discontent. Gatting, the selectors’ preferred captain, was black-balled and Gower given charge instead. Recruitment for a rebel tour of South Africa was happening behind the scenes, breeding cynicism and resentment.
I moved overseas during the series and remember asking a friend about it when back in Britain the following year. He said he thought it was best ignored and didn’t want to discuss it now.
Australia remain buoyant compared to the depths of these three campaigns. What, though, would it take for this tour to descend further? One scenario occurs to me: Michael Clarke fights a lonely battle at Old Trafford, recording a century in a heavy defeat and then succumbs to his chronic back problem. That may leave Australia in a desperate situation (unless it allowed Simon Katich to be called-up, of course).