The Awkwardest Squad: Why the 96/97 “flippin’ murdered ’em” tour of Zimbabwe was peak 90s England (a net bowler’s story)

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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.”

The squad

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.”

Nasser Hussain

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.”

Alec Stewart

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.”

Graham Thorpe

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.

John Crawley

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.

Nick Knight

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.)”

Ronnie Irani

Not a posh lad. D Charlton says he tried to make up for a lack of ability with being ‘up for it’.

Here are some reviews of Ronnie Irani’s autobiography.

Jack Russell

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.

Dominic Cork

Cork actually pulled out of the trip due to personal reasons, but would surely have added to the ambience one way or another.

Robert Croft

“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).

Darren Gough

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.”

Andy Caddick

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.”

Phil Tufnell

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.”

Alan Mullally

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.”

Chris Silverwood

“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.

Further reading: The 1990s-est England Test XI – a team that couldn’t be more Nineties if it tried

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  1. I really enjoyed this article – thank you KC and DC.

    “Lloyd is a passionate and very slightly unhunged man.” I suspect that has a typo in it, but I must say I rather like the portmanteau word “unhunged”, especially in the context of Bumble.

    I was sorry to read the comments on John Barclay and/but wonder whether his perceived aloofness was more to do with his shyness and/or his mental state at the time.

    I have met Barclay just the once and told him that I had wanted to meet him ever since reading his book, Life Beyond The Airing Cupboard, which I thoguht an excellent book. He blushed like a kid and when I then said to him, “I can’t be the first person who has said words to that effect to you”, Barclay said, “I think you might be!”.

    I love the idea that Hick and Ramprakash’s absence is a quintessentially 90s and their presence. Worth the price of the Patreon commitment alone, that idea.

  2. Cashew chicken without cashews, reminds me of the time, I ordered, vegetable noodles without vegetables

  3. Brilliant. More please about England Cricket in the 90s, Like Ian Salisbury playing 15 tests purely on the basis of him being the only person in England that bowled leg spin

    1. Not sure if it’s still true, but he used to have the worst test bowling average of all players with ten or more tests. Something over 70 as I recall.

      And people say that the English test team in the 90s was mediocre!

      1. It was “worst average of anyone who took at least 20 wickets in their career”, and Rubel Hossain took the record off him (for now, at least).

    2. Don’t get chance to do many of these sorts of things, but we will indeed try and do more 90s.

  4. Fabulous article chaps. There’s insight, and then there’s ordinary people dragged into the middle of something extraordinary who because they’re not part of the system can see things for what they really are. Thank you for this.

  5. Thank you KC for a cracking smorgasbord of my notes and proper insight. And for kind comments, team commenters. It was a weird old time, looking back on it.

    Anyway, one bit I found out during a bit of research was during the first ODI, Mullally was promoted to No.8 to give it some humpty, and was out first ball blocking. Peak 1990s, as KC says.

    It’s worth digging around on Cricinfo to find Martin Johnson’s match reports from the tour – from the Electronic Telegraph (old Daily Telegraph) – as they’re very funny and very rude.

    (Or you could click go:

    1. Speaking of the 90s, that link appears to be rather 90s itself. I can hear the dulcet dial-up tones now.

    2. Wow, those match reports by Johnson are brilliant! This paragraph was a cracker:

      “Many theories have been advanced for performances like this in
      recent years – smog, prawns, too much fitness training, not
      enough fitness training, heat, altitude, the alignment of the
      planets . . . what next? Every time we think England have
      bottomed out they produce yet another gem of incompetence, and
      if you were to include them all in a book, they’d take up more
      space on the shelf than the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

      1. If you click on the “News and articles” link you get even more of them! My favourite being “Caddick and Irani ready for England shoot-out” but which ends frustratingly curtailed:

        His mood will also be lighter after finally getting a win under his belt. There is nothing Atherton feels more than his team coming in for public ridicule, something the Australians now have down to a fine art. Midway through the 1990-91 Ashes series there, England’s first halfway decent day of the series resulted in the newspaper headline:

        Does anybody know what came next? I fear originally there would have been an image there.

      2. I also like Johson’s piece on England’s refusal to back Zimbabwe’s Test status: Back in 1992, when Zimbabwe successfully applied for full Test status, they were opposed by England, and only England, on the grounds that they were not good enough. As insults go, this was a bit like being turned down for a bricklayer’s job by the bloke who built the walls of Jericho.

        The reports on England’s warm-up loss to Mashonaland are also good fun. I’d forgotten (though recall noticing at the time) that England came undone in good parts at the hands of Sussex’s James Kirtley who was spending the winter in Zimbabwe.

        Now for the good news. The consignment of Tetley beer has
        arrived, and so have the advance crew from Sky TV, who yesterday
        presented England coach David Lloyd with an armful of what were
        described as “motivational videos”.

        Apparently, these are a compilation of England’s cricketers
        doing great things, such as a bowler taking a wicket, but given
        the nature of the subject matter, it was something of a surprise
        that Sky had managed to put together as many as 10 of these
        videos. On the other hand, as it’s Sky, they are probably 90 per
        cent adverts.

  6. Hello. Great stuff, I’ll chip in on Patreon reasonably soon, I promise. I found out about you via a recommendation from Russian chess player/commentator Peter Svidler. He’s a huge cricket fan (favourite team England, if that’s conceivable), and such an all-round interesting guy you may want to do a piece on him.

    1. Unless you’ve already told us this, you’re (at least) the second person to have arrived at this site thanks to Russian chess player/commentator Peter Svidler.

      Patreonage is entirely optional, don’t feel obliged – but thanks if you do.

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