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Remember 1996? Things were very different in 1996.
Back in 1996 Leonardo Dicaprio from The Revenant and Claire Danes from Homeland seemed like a perfectly reasonable Romeo and Juliet. Back in 1996 Babylon Zoo could get to number one before anyone realised that the catchy speeded-up bit we all knew from the Levi’s ad only lasted a few seconds. Back in 1996, a “number one” was a meaningful thing.
Look at some of the other artists who had number ones in 1996 (Oasis, Take That, The Prodigy, The Fugees, Baddiel and Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, The Spice Girls, The Chemical Brothers, Robson and Jerome) and there’s a strong case for saying that musically-speaking, 1996 was the most 1990s year of all.
Cinematically, that title goes to 1997, which brought us Con Air and Face/Off inside a month. Con Air and Face/Off in the same month! And Nicolas Cage was in both of them! That has to be the absolute epicentre of 1990s cinema.
So things were different in 96/97 and this included the England cricket team. The England cricket team was very different indeed. For one thing there were no central contracts and everything was a bit more slapdash as a consequence. Not entirely unconnected from that, the media-trained modern professional had yet to be invented.
With one significant exception, the men who toured Zimbabwe for England in 1996 and 1997 were basically a bunch of oddballs and misanthropes. For the purposes of this article, we’re calling them the Awkwardest Squad. It’s rhetoric, but what we’re going to do a little further down is we’re going to take a quick look at every single person in that squad to see why we can even float that label out there as a possibility.
That one significant exception though? That one significant exception is how this article came about.
How this article came about
You may remember a few weeks ago that Chris Silverwood was named as England’s new head coach. Shortly afterwards, King Cricket reader D Charlton got in touch to tell us that Silverwood was a very agreeable bloke.
A lot of people say this about Silverwood, but D Charlton appeared to be speaking with a degree of certainty, so we asked him how he knew. Turns out D Charlton was a net bowler on the 1996 tour of Zimbabwe.
As the conversation progressed, we realised that Silverwood’s personable nature had been thrown into greater clarity by the demeanour of his team-mates. We then found the squad and realised that everyone else was really awkward and the whole thing was incredibly 90s and so we decided to do a big thing about it.
A bit of background
The 1996 tour of Zimbabwe was England’s first senior tour of the country. The Wisden Cricketer reported that the England management fell out with the players, “almost as soon as they touched down in Harare,” in large part because they didn’t allow the wives and girlfriends to visit. (During the first Test, the players had a meeting about whether or not to go home for a week.)
TWC also said that the tourists’ approach to the trip was regarded as, “at best aloof and at worst downright rude.” England had been the only country to vote against Zimbabwe gaining full Test status and that, plus broader ‘history’, made it all a bit awks.
To make matters even less stable, David Lloyd was the coach. The first Test was the first in history to finish a draw with the scores level. England needed three runs to win off the final ball, but Nick Knight was run out going for the third.
“We flippin’ murdered ‘em,” claimed Lloyd afterwards and Lord MacLaurin, the new ECB chairman, flew to Zimbabwe to tell him off.
The tour manager was John Barclay, who D Charlton describes as having been, “Quietly classist, displaying a soft, casual, lack of respect for locals.”
The net bowler
D Charlton was with the squad leading up to that first Test in Bulawayo. He’d been in Zimbabwe on his own, following the cricket (England lost quite a few matches on this tour) when a family friend put him in touch with Mark Nicholas, who was Sky’s anchor at the time.
Nicholas introduced him to David Lloyd and 19-year-old D Charlton, on his first trip abroad, became an England net bowler.
“I was an okay youth county batsman and a makeshift seam bowler,” he said. “I’ve always been able to bowl straight and not slow – certainly not quick, but not slow either. I would love to face me because I’m the perfect pace. This makes me a solid net bowler – just right for getting your eye in.”
Lloyd threw D Charlton some balls and some Tetley Bitter branded tracksuit bottoms. D Charlton also vaguely remembers Chris Silverwood giving him one of his tops, “which may or may not be true but that’s the sort of thing he’d have done.”
Nicholas gave him his press pass. “It was a printed out photocopy, which meant I was able to blag my way into the ground – into anywhere, really – for the rest of the tour. He knew that security wasn’t exactly in existence. He also gave me feedback on my bowling: ‘Atherton said you were a good pace for practice.’”
Between practice sessions, he says he, “hung around the boundary awkwardly, out of place, surrounded by The Misanthropes. I chatted to a load of the Zim players who were, predictably, very friendly.
“I jiggered my back bowling. Then, when we got to Harare, I was too nervous to force the issue and do more net bowling: hanging out with the Barmy Army in backpackers’ lodges was way more fun. And that was it.”
This was the early days of the Barmy Army. They sang: “We’re fat, we’re round, this only cost a pound – Inngerrrland, Ingerrrland,” in reference to a pack of six beers. The song seems brutal with hindsight when you consider that Zimbabwe suffered crippling hyper-inflation two years’ later.
Another marvellous song/chant D Charlton recalls was, “Ronnie Irani – In Harare.”
“It went on and on and on. Forever. And whenever I see his name, all I can think of is “Ronnie Irani … in Harare.”
If we’re arguing that this was peak 90s, you’ll no doubt take issue with the absence of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash. We’ll counter-argue that the whole point of the 90s was that these batsmen were in and out of the side, so it’s every bit as 90s that they weren’t there.
Hick was actually omitted for the first time since becoming eligible to play for England, which must have been especially galling as he was from Zimbabwe. Wikipedia notes that he went over at the same time as part of Worcestershire’s tour and took six wickets in a match against a Matabeleland Invitation XI.
Here’s the Awkwardest Squad.
David Lloyd (coach)
The whole ‘Bumble’ schtick isn’t entirely an act. Lloyd is a passionate and very slightly unhinged man. Recalling the atmosphere leading up to the Test, D Charlton says: “Calm and reserved it was not.”
Mike Atherton (captain)
Didn’t always seem to be in the best of spirits when playing the game. Once broke his own toe kicking a set of scales in the dressing room.
According to D Charlton: “He was called Captain Grumpy by all Zimbabweans and he went out of his way not to disabuse them of this notion. He was in a tour-long sulk.”
This tour was well before the redemption of captaincy made Nasser many England fans’ Favourite Person Ever. D Charlton reckons he batted for his average in the first one-day international. He made 49 not out off 87 balls. England lost.
Hussain’s fiery temper is legendary. Angus Fraser remembers one occasion when he put his fist through a wooden locker. “The wooden slats had pinched around his wrist forming a vice-like grip. It was like a venus fly trap with all the sharp bits pointing in.”
A man who said the best thing about scoring a hundred in his hundredth Test was that he did it on the Queen Mother’s birthday. In other words, Alec Stewart is a massive weirdo.
According to D Charlton: “The consummate professional – as in the real sense of professional: out there to make money. Stewart cared about his bank balance more than anything else.”
One way or another, cricket tours didn’t always agree with Thorpe. He was, in many ways, born 20 years too early.
In Zimbabwe, D Charlton felt he was already battling with mental demons.
After our two conspicuous absentees, Crawley was arguably the third Great Unfulfilled Talent from the 1990s. “The stress to fulfil that talent was hurting him in Zimbabwe,” says D Charlton.
Knight is best known these days as a weirdly earnest commentator and pundit. His trademark line is the drawn-out, bet-hedging, “Should be four… is four.” (Also, ‘Should be out… is out.’)
“Posh lad surrounded by not posh lads, and he knew it,” says D Charlton. “Greeted me with a wink and ‘ah, from the same stable’. (Yes, I’m a public school boy.)”
Not a posh lad. D Charlton says he tried to make up for a lack of ability with being ‘up for it’.
Didn’t play and spent the entire tour painting. “I saw him in Bulawayo doing a landscape,” says D Charlton.
Russell used to drive between county games clad in a sleeping bag with the bottom cut out. Although he drank up to 20 cups of tea a day, he would use one tea bag per Test match, hanging it on a nail to dry out between dunkings. He once spent every night of the Perth Test at the same Chinese restaurant, ordering cashew chicken without the cashews.
Cork actually pulled out of the trip due to personal reasons, but would surely have added to the ambience one way or another.
“I genuinely remember him demanding England be called ‘England and Wales’ as he led the Barmy Army in song in a bar Harare,” says D Charlton (although he concedes that this is actually a fair call).
In a half-hearted bid to quickly sum up Gough, we’re going to call him ‘bullish’ and then we’re also going to link to this clip from Hole In The Wall.
“I bowled him a yorker,” says D Charlton. “He dug it out and said well bowled. He seemed more interested in batting practice than bowling.”
Caddick was sometimes magnificent, sometimes innocuous, and always a bit of an awkward oddball.
He was a DIY expert who actually took tools away with him and learned to fly helicopters during his playing career. At the age of 39, he railed against the selectors for not picking him. “I can still do a damned sight better job than some of those idiots who are playing for England at the moment,” he said.
D Charlton recalls: “He was in pea-shooter mode, not Paris Gun because of the extreme management strategy of Bumble and support staff. Ian Botham having an official role as ‘bowling mentor’ and ‘motivator’ didn’t help.”
We don’t really need to tell you about Phil Tufnell, do we? Question of Sport, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here; nicknamed ‘The Cat’ because he slept in the dressing room all the time; terrible fielder, terrified batsman; “Oi, Tufnell. Lend us your brain, we’re building an idiot.”
D Charlton says: “He was my one ‘international’ wicket in the nets. I clean bowled him and he turned round and wiped out the remaining stumps in anger.”
An erratic, laid-back goofball of a man, Emma John described interviewing Mullally as being, “like trying to listen to a Sigur Ros album on shuffle.”
Since retirement, Mullally has lost a lot of money, suffered depression and been charged with drink-driving a bunch of times. He once stuck a 100kg dead shark in Mike Atherton’s bed.
D Charlton says in Zimbabwe he took part in middle practice with such little interest that he had his headphones in as he bowled. “I still can’t work out how as this was pre-iPods.”
“Cracking lad,” recalls D Charlton. “Really friendly to a new face in the dressing room. He really didn’t have to be, but was just a nice, normal dude. He had a great bowling action too.”
What happened next?
The second and final Test match was a rain-affected draw, so the series ended 0-0.
Zimbabwe won all three one-dayers.
First published in November 2019.
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