Revisiting the 1990s
There should be a collective name for England cricket fans who started watching the game in the 1990s. The Heartbreak Generation, perhaps. The Lost Souls. It would sum up the experience of signing up to follow a team that disappointed in an endless variety of ways, and that could manufacture a batting collapse in even the most promising of situations.
We were a group who knew nothing of the heady days of Headingley ’81. We never had our Ashes moment. The greatest high we experienced was often the thrill of achieving an impossible draw, either through the impervious batting of our captain Mike Atherton, or the cartoonishly heroic antics of our tailenders. We grew to know the ins and outs of defeat as well as we knew our own underpants.
It’s little wonder that no one has really told our story before. It’s a seemingly downbeat tale – of emotionally fragile batsmen, of left-arm medium-pacers, of second-hand Australians. Ramprakash, Lathwell, Ilott, Mullally, McCague, the Hollioakes: their names are scattered through the record books like broken debris. Shards, perhaps, of some domestic item that couldn’t bear much use, and that now lay just beneath the surface, waiting for a time when anthropologists will find them interesting again.
It was always going to take a while for England fans themselves to be able to look back on the ’90s with any great affection. This was a time of defeat and trauma, of 40% losses. No one following the team through that period escaped without a certain amount of mental scarring. I for one, as a young girl with limited life experience, believed England would probably never beat Australia again, not in my lifetime. Ashes defeat was all I knew. It was the cricketing equivalent of that M. Night Shyamalan film, The Village. I had no idea that just down the road there might be another kind of existence, one where players achieved their potential and bowlers knew how to drop it on a length.
And so, while the Ashes victory of 2005 marked England’s final triumphant escape from the horror pit of the ’90s, it’s taken rather longer to get over the memories. England fans had to fashion ourselves a new identity first. We became not just a team who could beat Australia, but one who did, and with increasing regularity. Twenty years on, our team enjoyed a dizzying spell as the best in the world, and we can finally be confident that – the odd 5–0 glitch aside – we’re well safe of our past.
Today we’re finally ready to face our worst days – to celebrate, in fact, the decade that gave us Atherton, Stewart, Tufnell and Gough. My own book (a memoir of being a teenage fan during that tumultuous period) is published this month, and Sky has also made a documentary featuring many of the key figures of the period, some talking for the first time about those days. In Stephen Chalke’s new book Team Mates, Mike Atherton writes about his relationship with his old friend and stalwart opening bowler Angus Fraser.
And with all this reminiscing has come an epiphany – a revelation that England really weren’t as bad as we thought. The stats confirm it. The bald truth is that England’s win ratio was marginally worse in the ’80s, a fact obscured by three Ashes wins that gilded the era of Gower, Gooch and Gatting rather more than it deserved. Atherton himself managed to play in a series-winning side against every major Test nation except Australia.
But it isn’t just that we’ve been misinterpreting the figures. It has taken 20 years to put England’s ’90s team in a historically wider context. I spoke to 12 of its defining England players as I was researching my book – from Graham Thorpe and Jack Russell to Dominic Cork and Andy Caddick – and all of them agreed that, despite the poor results, they wouldn’t have chosen to play in any other era.
Why? Because the ’90s were, in retrospect, a great decade for cricket. There were world-class pace attacks wherever you looked: South Africa had Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, Pakistan had Wasim and Waqar, West Indies, Curtly and Courtney. In Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara it was blessed with not one but two batsmen-of-a-generation, in Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan it had arguably the two greatest spinners of all time. And it was the decade that Steve Waugh’s record-breaking Invincibles were forged.
It was one of the toughest and most brilliant eras in world cricket, something we can only appreciate now, in hindsight. Call it revisionism, call it rose-tinted spectacles – but nostalgia for ’90s cricket has finally arrived. It’s about time too.
Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket is published by Bloomsbury, available at Waterstones and all good bookshops; or for an online discount click here. Follow Emma on Twitter @em_john