No Light At The End Of The Tunnel

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

David Gower, Ian Botham, Allan Lamb, Paul Downton, Brian Lara, Ridley Jacobs, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. What do they have in common?

They are the only cricketers to have played on the losing side in two five-Tests series whitewashes.

Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni and Courtney Walsh are near-misses, having played in nine out of ten Test defeats spread across two series. If they had made the cut, they would have completed a strange set of twelve with seven specialist batsmen including just one opener, two wicketkeepers and one specialist bowler. What does that tell us about selectors at times of panic? Drop the bowlers.

Test cricket is the game’s most extreme format. It is no accident that it is called a “Test”. The demands – physical and mental – are considerable. This is what makes a Test series between two well-matched sides so fascinating.
But if the sides are not well-matched, there is nothing in sport that quite compares with the potential ignominy of the five-match Test series. It is not the best of five. You do not stop at three-nil. You go on to the bitter end.
There have been ten such whitewashes since the birth of Test cricket. England have been at the receiving end five times, India and the West Indies twice each and South African once. Australia have been the victors on five occasions, West Indies three times, England and South Africa once each. Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have never played a five-match series. Rain at The Oval saved New Zealand from a whitewash in 1958; since then they played only two five-match series. Pakistan have played several, but are far too mercurial to have been involved in anything so essentially predictable as a whitewash.

Not surprisingly perhaps these dire results have tended to come in clusters, though not in the early days. The first whitewash was the Ashes series in 1920-21, the first Test series for eight years. England looked strong on paper. The side included three men who to this day are the highest run-scorers in first-class cricket – Jack Hobbs, Frank Woolley and Patsy Hendren – and the leading wicket-taker of all-time, Wilfred Rhodes. But only Hobbs did himself justice and they were no match for Warwick Armstrong’s Australians.

The next whitewash was suffered by the South Africans who toured Australia in 1931-32 and were unlucky to run into Don Bradman in his first series since his triumphant tour of England in 1930. In the first four Tests he scored 226, 112, 2 and 167, and 299 not out. He missed the fifth Test. It did not matter: South Africa were bowled out for 36 and 45.

From this point on it is cluster time. India suffered whitewashes against England in 1959 and the West Indies in 1961-62. Fred Trueman and Brian Statham did the damage in England, Wes Hall in the Caribbean.
The next cluster is David Gower’s two series against the West Indies in 1984 and 1985-86. Gower is the only man to have captained in two whitewashes. The 1984 series is the only example of the home side suffering a whitewash. In between the two series, though, England beat India away and Australia at home. Recently asked what was the lowest point in his career, Gower had no hesitation in answering that it was the 1989 home Ashes. England had been expected to win but lost the six-match series four-nil. Against the 1980s West Indies, they never had a chance. Unlike most whitewashes, those two series say more about the victors than the vanquished.

It’s an entirely different matter with the next cluster: West Indies’ defeats against South Africa in 1998-99 and against Australia in 2000-01. There is nothing to be said really. In Australia where the home side had been so often punished by the West Indies in their pomp, there was no jubilation: just astonishment and some sorrow that such a giant should be laid so low.
And then there are the two Ashes thumpings of 2006-07 and 2013-14. They do not really form a cluster. In between England beat the same opposition three times and were briefly No. 1 in the Test rankings. The first was perhaps more easily explained. England were without their talismanic captain Michael Vaughan and their experienced opener Marcus Trescothick (although he never scored an Ashes century in three series). Also Australia were still a genuinely great side. England had won the Ashes in the phenomenal 2005 rubber but both of their victories – one of them, a two-run squeak escape act at Edgbaston – came in games Glenn McGrath missed. Ricky Ponting’s team seized the initiative from the first day – the first over – at Brisbane, and never let go.

But 2013-14 was different. Out of seven pundits asked by The Cricketer magazine to predict the result, five said England would win by a margin of either 2-1 or 3-1. Lawrence Booth, the editor of Wisden, said it would be 2-2. The former Australian batsman Damien Martyn did not predict a margin but said he really thought Australia could win.

England took the first session at Brisbane. That was it, really. From then on it was all Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson, David Warner and the others. By Sydney it was just embarrassing.

One of the awful things about whitewashes, for the losers, is that, inevitably, the individual games are often very one-sided. The ten series discussed here comprised, by definition, fifty games. Let us define a comfortable win as a victory by an innings, a margin of at least 100 runs or no fewer than seven wickets. By that reckoning, of these fifty victories, only four were not comfortable.

In the first Test at Johannesburg in 1998-99, South Africa beat West Indies by four wickets. It was still not exactly a close-run thing. Perhaps the hosts were just warming up: they won the last Test by 551 runs.
In two of their Tests against Australia in 2000-01 the West Indies put up a decent show, losing the third Test at Adelaide, where Lara got 182, by five wickets and the fifth at Sydney by four.

The last example of a technical non-drubbing was in fact one of the most excruciating of all defeats. England had lost the first Test at Brisbane in 2006-07 by 277 runs but were well positioned on the second day of the second Test at Adelaide when Andrew Flintoff declared on 551 for six. It was one of those declarations that you could sort of understand at the time – like Gower declaring at Lord’s in 1984, to give his bowlers enough time to bowl West Indies out (West Indies won by nine wickets) – but in hindsight seems crazy. It might have been alright if Ashley Giles had not dropped Ponting on 35: he made 142 and with Michael Hussey took the score from 65 for 3 to 257 for 4. Anyway late on the fourth day Australia were bowled out for 513. Cook was out on that evening. In the Channel 9 commentary box Ian Chappell said there was only one side that could win the match: Australia, because Australia had Shane Warne. He was right. It was extraordinary. Warne was just too clever for England. Paul Collingwood, who had made a double-century in the first innings, was literally mesmerised, scoring 22 in just under three and a half hours. That attitude affected everyone: England were all out by 3.45 and Australia had to chase 168. Outplayed for three and a half days, they won at a canter by six wickets.

If the first Test in a five-match series has a positive result, the second Test is always the most critical one and tends to set the tone. That was the case in 2006-07, as it had been in 1984 and was to be in 2013-14. Cook probably started preparing his losing speech on the first evening at Adelaide after Haddin was dropped by Michael Carberry.

In fact Cook’s speech was really quite upbeat. He made it sound as though losing five-nil was almost as good as winning, citing the lessons learned after 2006-07. Then there had been a commission of inquiry and wholesale changes. This time media reports suggest that the coach will stay, the captain will stay and the senior players will stay – except, perhaps, the best one, Pietersen, who will go, or, maybe he won’t.

Good, that’s all sorted then.

Better luck next time.

This article was published in ESPN Cricinfo:

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