The West Indies, unbeaten in a test series since the 1979/80 tour of New Zealand, were still the team to beat, although in many ways they did not seem quite as intimidating as some of their 1980s predecessors. In truth they were in a slight state of transition, moving from the awesome team of the mid-80s, to the post-Richards team of the early to mid-90s. Both elements of their team highlighted this. Their batting comprised of ageing stars, such as Greenidge (37) and Richards (36), along with players trying to establish themselves in the test arena (Logie 23 matches, test average 29.09, Hooper 6 matches, test average 33.66). The bowling unit contained the inexperienced trio of Ambrose (3 tests), Winston Benjamin (4) and Patterson (11), along with Courtney Walsh, and the spearhead of the attack in Malcolm Marshall. Their last four series had all been drawn: away in Pakistan, New Zealand and India, and they had even been held 1-1 at home to Pakistan. But they were still the West Indies, still number one, and in England they had opponents that had suffered at their hands on too many occasions to name in the recent past.
England on the other hand, the 86-87 Ashes victories aside, were in a sorry state. The brave new era of Mike Gatting's captaincy was hardly a flourishing success, indeed since he was appointed skipper in 1986, his record stood at won 2, drawn 15, lost 5, both victories coming against a similarly ailing Australian team. It could be argued that the turning point in Gatting's reign was that appalling reverse sweep he played in the 1987 World Cup final. From that day on, it seemed that everything Gatting touched turned pear-shaped: a 1-0 test series loss in Pakistan was over shadowed by the Shakor Rana affair, a 0-0 stalemate in New Zealand was as dull as it sounds, and the knives were truly being sharpened in the corridors of Lord's. It was definitely a case of there may be trouble ahead, the question being when Gatting would have to face the music and walk.
Surprisingly the first test of the summer in Nottingham started well for England. Having won the toss Gatting elected to bat, Gooch and Broad vindicating his decision by leading England to an impressive 125/0. As ever though the inevitable prospect of a collapse hung over the team, and before you knew it England had been dismissed for a less than impressive 245, Marshall the chief tormentor with 6/69. When the West Indies replied with a comparatively mammoth 448 England were staring down the barrel. Fortunately due to bad weather, the England reply did not start until heavily into the fourth day, improving the hosts chances of a face-saving draw. Gooch again anchored the innings, hitting a superb 146 whilst batting for 416 minutes. Gower's unbeaten 88 led England to 301/3, meaning England had avoided defeat against the tourists for the first time since 1981. Admittedly only 108 overs were possible in England's second innings, but as every England follower could have told you, that had been plenty enough in the past. Indeed it was the first time since that drawn test in 1981 that England had faced that many overs in a single innings against the West Indies, which is slightly disconcerting to say the least.
If things had started relatively calmly, then a storm was beginning to brew up in the shape of the England skipper. Still under scrutiny for the Rana affair, and upsetting the TCCB by releasing his autobiography Leading From The Front, Gatting gave the powers-that-be the perfect excuse to dismiss him. Gatting, it had been discovered, had taken a barmaid to his Rothley Court hotel room in Leicester, although it is unclear if anything untoward happened or not. The TCCB must have licked their lips at the chance to rid Gatting of his duties. Whether taking a woman to his hotel room warranted such a draconian sentence as losing the England captaincy is debatable, but what is clear is that Gatting's neck was on the block a long time before Rothley Court and he stupidly gave his employers the perfect opportunity to bring down the axe.
This is where the fun and games, England style, began. John Emburey was appointed as skipper number two, with Gatting opting to give Lord's a miss. England started encouragingly, reducing the tourists to 54/5. However, a fine partnership between Gus Logie (81) and Jeff Dujon (53) dragged the West Indians up to 209, leaving England to rue a missed opportunity. When England could only respond with 165 (Marshall 6/32) the game was always slipping away, and a Greenidge hundred, and another fine innings from Logie (95 not out) meant England faced an impossible target of 442. Only some late innings resistance from Emburey, Jarvis and Dilley added respectability to the outcome, as normal service was resumed in a 134 run victory for the West Indians.
If Lord's had been encouraging in places then Old Trafford was simply too embarrassing to comprehend. Gatting returned, contributing 0 and 4, in two of the most shambolic England batting performances of the 80s, and believe you me that is saying something. First time up, England limped to 135 all out from just 60.2 overs, although they somehow managed to outdo this abysmal effort in the second innings. Replying to the West Indies 384/7 declared (no centurions but six batsmen scoring 39 or more), England did what only they could do best in the 80s, lasting 42.4 overs this time round for a pathetic 93 all out. Again Marshall filled his boots, picking up a thrilling 7/22. Eventually the West Indies would do a believable impression of England themselves, but at the time England's effort was simply too shameful to stomach.
Obviously this pitiful showing was all down to John Emburey's captaincy (sarcasm is the lowest form of wit), but the England selectors, stopping short of donning red noses and big shoes, decided that they had one more trick up their sleeve: Chris Cowdrey. Certainly not a bad player, Cowdrey would forever be in the shadow of his father (think of him like a cricketing Jordi Cruyff) and although he was doing a good job captaining Kent, never in the wildest imagination of any England fan did we ever think this man would be captaining our country come Headingley. But Peter May, the chairman of selectors, and coincidentally Cowdrey's godfather (there goes the sarcasm again), thought otherwise, and captain number three was with us. The fact that Cowdrey was reportedly refused entry to the Headingley car park the day before the test, because the steward on duty didn't recognise him, only goes to highlight the farcical nature of it all.
Excuse me sir, could I possibly see your pass?
England made seven changes for Headingley, including axeing the previous skipper in Emburey, and handing debuts to Tim Curtis and Robin Smith. The previous captain to the previous captain (keep up at the back), Gatting, decided that he had had enough of test cricket and excluded himself from selection for the rest of the summer. Chaos doesn't begin to explain it. Of course amongst all this mayhem, one constant remained: England continued to lose. The West Indians won the toss and unsurprisingly sent a tottering England into bat. 69.1 overs later, England had been put out of their misery, totalling a paltry 201, Allan Lamb top scoring with 64, before he tore his calf muscle and had to retire hurt. Lamb and debutant Smith had been batting valiantly, leading England to 183/4, but England's hopes limped off with Lamb, and 183/4 soon became 201 all out. England did do batting collapses better than anyone else in the 80s.
To their credit, England did fight back, reducing the tourists to 222/8, although Roger Harper eventually nudged the West Indies up to 275 (Pringle 5/95). At 80/1 England were still in the game, though you probably have a rough idea of what happened next. England folded to 138 all out, and it seemed that this team were trying their hardest to outdo their previous inept display with every visit to the crease. A ten wicket defeat followed, meaning the West Indians had wrapped up the series 3-0, and the comedy roadshow continued on to the Oval.
Cowdrey picked up a foot injury in a county match against Somerset (no central contracts back then), which led to more shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic. Graham Gooch became the latest Englishman to captain his country, David Gower was dropped after winning his 100th cap in the previous test, Lamb pulled out injured, and debuts were handed to Matthew Maynard and Rob Bailey, meaning England had chosen a whopping 23 players in the series.
Again England competed for large portions of the Oval test, however when the crunch moments arrived they were found wanting. From 116/2 in the first innings came the all too familiar surrender to 205 all out. To the surprise of everyone though England actually managed to gain a first innings lead, Neil Foster taking 5/64, as the West Indians could only muster 183. Could England pull off the unimaginable? Well no, of course they couldn't, this was England in the 80s after all. Only the Essex duo of Gooch (84) and nightwatchman Foster (34) showed any resistance, as England failed to capitalise on their rare position of strength, setting the West Indies a target of 225.
Just to rub things in a little more, the West Indies strolled to an eight wicket victory and a 4-0 series win, Greenidge and Haynes rolling back the years with twin 77s. Incredibly England even had time to add another captain to their ranks, as Derek Pringle took over from Gooch, who had dislocated his finger attempting to take a catch off of a Phil Defreitas no ball (only England). England had notched up their 19th test in a row without victory and it wasn't all that easy as an England fan to be optimistic about a setup that thought nothing of passing around the top job in English cricket like a Dutchie on the left hand side. Victory in the one-off test against the Sri Lankans at least arrested the slide, but even the most ardent of English followers knew that this only papered over vast cracks.
For the West Indies the strain of trying to maintain their number one status would finally tell, although their 3-1 victory in Australia gave little indication of their gradual decline. However, their 2-1 series win over England in the Carribbean in 1990 revealed to the cricketing world that all was not well, and by 1992/93 they were clinging on grimly to their crown. Their 2-1 win against Australia was achieved literally by the skin of their teeth and it was simply a case of when, rather than if, they would be toppled. The final blow came in the 1994/95 series against the touring Australians. It was the end of an era, and the West Indies have never been the same since.
Unfortunately for England it had to get a lot worse before it got better, and the summer of 1989, a 4-0 Ashes defeat, 29 players, and a rebel South African tour, could certainly be classed as rock bottom (Yazz obviously lied when she frequently told us that the only way is up). It does say a lot for the dire state of English cricket at that time, that a summer of four captains in five tests was bettered (or worsened) the very next year. But that's England for you, and in a strange way it's probably why the recent good times should be appreciated that much more by any Englishman old enough to remember such hardships. So the next time someone complains to you that England can't be classed as the world number one until they win in Asia, take them to one side, and tell them in a slightly patronising way that they don't know just how good they have got it. Because you have to experience the bad to appreciate the good, and I'm sure you'll agree, it doesn't get much lower than the summer of four captains in 1988.