Alec Stewart (left) led England to another failed campaign. Andrew Flintoff's face tells the story © Getty Images
Alec Stewart (left) led England to another failed campaign. Andrew Flintoff’s face tells the story © Getty Images

England’s shambolic display in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 was by no means a first for them; they have performed poorly at every instalment of the tournament since their last appearance in the final in 1992. In the second part of the series Michael Jones recalls the 1999 tournament, when at one point England seemed certain to qualify for the Super Sixes — before everything started to go wrong. Read: England and World Cup Cricket — the same old story: Part 1 of 5

On paper at least, England’s performance the last World Cup of the 20th century was an improvement on the previous tournament: they actually beat two Test teams this time. Nevertheless, it is remembered as one of their lowest points — partly because their early elimination took place on their own turf, and partly because before the last round of group matches, qualification had seemed all but certain; some newspapers went as far as speculating as to who they would play in the Super Sixes. Only one particular, seemingly improbable, set of circumstances could have seen them fail to make it — yet it was precisely that scenario which unfolded.

The tournament curtain-raiser was hosts against holders, and Sri Lanka found conditions at Lord’s in mid-May rather less to their liking than Kolkata or Lahore. Sanath Jayasuriya laboured his way to 29 from 52 balls, a stark contrast to his previous World Cup innings against England, while Roshan Mahanama and Marvan Atapattu fell cheaply at the other end. Hashan Tillakaratne and Aravinda de Silva made ducks, and the reigning champions had been reduced to 65 for five, with Alan Mullally taking three of them. Romesh Kaluwitharana, relegated to No. 7 from his previous role as pinch hitter, made 57, adding 84 for the sixth wicket with Arjuna Ranatunga, and the tail pushed the total over 200. Muttiah Muralitharan had Nasser Hussain stumped early in England’s reply, but Alec Stewart made 88, Graeme Hick finished unbeaten on 73 and the hosts strolled to an eight-wicket win — although even in victory they showed that they had not yet worked out how to take best advantage of the rules; the use of net run rate as a tiebreaker if teams finished on same points meant that any team already assured of victory could still boost its chances of qualification further by reaching the target as quickly as possible. Despite having the wickets in hand to accelerate, England showed no inclination to do so — a decision that they would come to regret.

Kenya were the hosts’ next opponents; although they had defeated West Indies in 1996, they had not threatened to repeat the upset since. Steve Tikolo fought hard with 71, Ravindu Shah 46, and between them they put together a century partnership for the second wicket, but the rest fell away: Thomas Odoyo’s unbeaten 34 was the only other double figure score, and they scraped 203. The target posed no problems for England, who overhauled it with Stewart’s wicket the only one lost — but again they showed no urgency about it; Hussain took 127 balls for his unbeaten 88, Hick 89 for 61. Two wins out of two, but they had the two toughest matches in the group still to play.

Their third match, against South Africa, presented an altogether different proposition. England’s decision to field backfired as Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten launched the innings with a century partnership; the middle order contributed little, but Lance Klusener — who had already started the tournament of his life, with 52 not out against Sri Lanka in the previous match — continued it with an unbeaten 48, taking his team to 225 for seven. England’s reply started badly, with Jacques Kallis atoning for his earlier duck by dismissing both openers in his first two overs — and it only got worse from there. Allan Donald ripped out the middle order with four for 17, and the home team were all out for 103. Although the loss in itself wasn’t too damaging to their chances of qualifying for the Super Sixes — there were, after all, three places available from the group – the margin of it put a severe dent in their net run rate, potentially putting them at a disadvantage if things got close at the end of the group stage.

Despite victories over Australia on their World Cup debut in 1983 and England in a low-scoring thriller at Albury in 1992, Zimbabwe had still failed to shake off the tag of “minnows”, and were not expected to make much of an impression at the 1999 tournament. They proceeded to tear up the form book with a three-run victory over India — minus Sachin Tendulkar, who had flown home to attend his father’s funeral — and went into their match against England with two wins out of three, the same record as their opponents. They never looked like repeating the performance: Darren Gough bowled Neil Johnson early on, and the experiment of promoting Paul Strang to No. three flopped as he hung around for 17 balls before departing for a duck. The innings never got going after that; Grant Flower’s 35, the top score of the innings, took up 90 balls, and although Zimbabwe batted out the full 50 overs, they mustered only 167 for eight. Alan Mullally finished with 2 for 16 off his ten overs, Gough 2 for 24, Angus Fraser 1 for 27. Johnson and Mpumelelo Mbangwa accounted for Stewart and Hick early in England’s chase to give Zimbabwe hope, but Hussain and Graham Thorpe slammed the door shut with a partnership of 123 for the third wicket. For the third time in three successful chases, though, England failed to see any need to hurry: when Thorpe was dismissed, they only needed nine to win, but managed to take five more overs to get them, with Neil Fairbrother crawling to seven off 23 balls.

With one round of group matches remaining, only South Africa, with four wins out of four, were guaranteed a place in the Super Sixes, and only Kenya, with four losses, were certain to be eliminated; the four teams in the middle were competing for two places. England, with three wins from their first four matches, were in pole position for one of them — they could only miss out if they lost to India and Zimbabwe beat South Africa, which seemed far-fetched; thus started the premature assumptions that they would qualify. Either India or Zimbabwe, with two wins and two losses each, could guarantee qualification by bettering the other’s result; if both achieved the same result it would come down to run rate. Sri Lanka, with one win out of four, had only an outside chance of qualifying: their last match was against Kenya, which gave them the best possible chance of victory, but even they would have to do so by the largest possible margin to boost their run rate, and then hope that other results went their way.

England won the toss for the fifth time in as many group matches, and for the fifth time Stewart chose to field first; India started the innings steadily, with all the top six reaching 20 but only Rahul Dravid going on to 50. From 174 for three the innings steadily declined, and only Ajay Jadeja’s 39 off 30 balls ensured they reached an eventual 232 for eight. Mark Ealham stood out both with the ball and in the field: he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin, took the catch to dismiss Dravid, and rather fortuitously ran out Sourav Ganguly by deflecting a straight drive from Dravid onto the non-striker’s stumps. Meanwhile Zimbabwe had compiled an almost identical 233 for six, riding on the back of Neil Johnson’s 76 at the top of the order — made against the country whose ‘A’ team he had represented less than a year earlier, before choosing to move north of the border. It was more than many observers would have expected them to muster, but surely not enough to trouble the top team in the group.

Back at Edgbaston, England’s reply started badly: Debasis Mohanty had Stewart edging to slip with the first ball of his second over, then, after a wide, bowled Hick for a golden duck. Hussain and Thorpe added 59 for the third wicket to haul the hosts back into the match; and had started raining by the time Ganguly bowled Hussain for 33 in the 20th over, and within a few minutes it became heavy enough to force the players off. Play was abandoned for the day, but with a reserve day allocated there was no need to reach for a calculator to determine the winner.

Rain had also affected proceedings at Chelmsford: a storm during the innings break made conditions very different when South Africa batted. Kirsten was surprised by the bounce of Johnson’s first ball, and fended it to gully, where Andy Whittall dived to hold on to a fingertip chance. Mark Boucher and Herschelle Gibbs stuck it out for a few overs before they disagreed over a risky single to midwicket, and Adam Huckle’s throw to the keeper was enough to run Gibbs out by yards. Heath Streak had Boucher caught behind off a no ball, but made amends by trapping him in front with a legitimate delivery three balls later. Johnson lured Jacques Kallis into a drive, found the outside edge and Andy Flower held onto the chance behind the stumps. South Africa were 25 for 4, in danger of a defeat which would not prevent their own qualification, but would certainly shake things up for the rest of the group. Johnson yorked Hansie Cronje, Streak had Jonty Rhodes lbw and Zimbabwe had their southern neighbours reeling at 40 for 6. Darryl Cullinan and Shaun Pollock stopped the rot with a partnership of 66, but when Whittall held onto a return catch from Cullinan, South Africa were still less than half way to the target, with only three wickets standing.

Now net run rate came into play: if South Africa could at least get close to Zimbabwe’s total, they would avoid giving their opponents’ rate too great a boost, leaving the chance still open that both England and India might qualify ahead of them. For a while, they threatened to do so: Pollock and Klusener kept the score ticking over, although some tight bowling meant the required rate was still increasing. They needed 86 off nine overs when Pollock decided to go for broke; attempting to hit Whittall for six, he was caught on the boundary by Henry Olonga. Steve Elworthy fell in the next over, and although Klusener attempted some pyrotechnics in the closing overs, maintaining a scoring rate of more than two runs per ball with only Donald for company proved beyond even him. With three overs remaining Donald’s slog off Olonga was caught by Streak in the covers, and Zimbabwe had beaten South Africa for the first time in any format of international cricket (they’ve repeated the feat only once since, snatching a two wicket win off the last ball at Durban in the triangular series the following year); Johnson and Streak finished with three wickets each. The win had repercussions for the rest of the tournament: it meant South Africa carried only two points forward to the Super Sixes rather than four — without which they would have topped the table, and avoided Australia in the draw for the semi-finals. More immediately, Zimbabwe’s victory was enough to knock out the reigning champions Sri Lanka, despite their own win over Kenya — and the margin was sufficient to put them through to the Super Sixes on run rate, regardless of the result of the one match still in progress.

England and India resumed the next morning with the context of the match transformed: from effectively being played for Super Sixes points, since both teams had seemed certain to qualify, it was now a straight knock-out — the winner would join South Africa and Zimbabwe in the Super Sixes, the loser would join Sri Lanka and Kenya in making an early exit. England needed 160 with seven wickets in hand; Thorpe started confidently, with a boundary off the first ball he faced from Javagal Srinath, but a yorker in Srinath’s next over hit him on the pads. It appeared to be missing leg stump, but Javed Akhtar gave Thorpe his marching orders; Akhtar was already notorious for a succession of blunders at Headingley the previous year, which had played a large part in England sealing a Test series win over South Africa. This time England were the losers in the Akhtar lottery — Fairbrother and Andrew Flintoff cobbled a partnership together, but two balls after hitting Anil Kumble for six, Flintoff became the next to get the trigger finger; this time the decision was not clearly incorrect, but there didn’t seem to be much sign of the batsman receiving the benefit of the doubt. After that, with wickets falling steadily and the required run rate spiralling out of control, the result was never in doubt. Hollioake and Ealham fell cheaply, Ganguly had Fairbrother caught behind, and although Gough and Fraser enjoyed themselves with a brief flurry of boundaries, it was only delaying the inevitable — which was duly sealed when Srinath rattled Mullally’s stumps to complete victory by 63 runs. England, India and Zimbabwe all finished with three wins from their five group matches, but England were left to rue their failure to pay sufficient attention to their net run rate earlier in the tournament, as they now found it the worst of the three. A quirk of the points system meant that despite only qualifying in third place, Zimbabwe started the Super Sixes at the top of the table thanks to wins against the two other qualifying teams, while the two teams they lost to (England and Sri Lanka) were eliminated; India had beaten both England and Sri Lanka, but started the Super Sixes with no points due to their losses against South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The official tournament song was released the day after the host nation’s participation had ended.

(Michael Jones’s writing focuses on cricket history and statistics, with occasional forays into the contemporary game)