The tragicomic allure of the England cricket team in the late 1990s

Covering 50 different seasons, from 1934 right up to the unique summer of 2020, Golden Summers tells the story of modern cricket. In this exclusive extract, Felix White finds meaning in bad cricket at the dog end of the 1990s.

Ninety-nine was my first Test match. Both mine and Darren Maddy’s. At some point in the morning session he manically chased down an outside edge, sliding in on his side semi-convincingly and flinging the ball in to ensure a likely four was kept to three.

Behind me, a couple of men commentating between themselves – interspersing the punditry with tales of who’d left whom and who was after sole custody – took particular note. “Who was that? Graham Thorpe?” “No, Darren Maddy. You don’t chase anything down like that if you know you’re in the side.”

To be fair, England’s stalwarts did often appear to be inspecting the backs of their fingernails. Still, I couldn’t help but feel it was a little unfair. England lost to New Zealand catastrophically and there was something strangely momentous about it. It was tragicomic. I couldn’t necessarily understand what I was feeling, but there was a certain kind of pride to be witnessing it – a kind of learned behaviour, a sense of theatre attached to the “Here we go again” brigade, rolling their eyes across The Oval in collective acceptance of inevitable disappointment. I observed it keenly.

We spent the third session passionately collecting plastic glasses for pint snakes and giggling while frenetically tearing up anything cardboard to throw in the air when the Mexican wave came back around. It was the summer that I started to realise I was probably going to be tied to the endless dimensions of cricket for a very long time. There was so much about that day that still feels vivid. The personalities of the cricketers themselves, so caricatured and cartoonish even from the back of the Bedser Upper.

It was fascinating that Andrew Caddick genuinely cat-walked up to bowl in real life and it wasn’t somehow invented through television. Nasser Hussain was all cursing and constant muttering, pumping his chest, walking back towards the crease, taking stance, leaving the ball, repeating the process. He eventually half-hooked a bouncer to square leg, staring through the gas works in the distance, arms forlorn, in total despair.

And Phil Tufnell was in the side. Phil Tufnell. He meant a lot to me at the time. A couple of summers previous, the voluntary “cricket coach” at school phoned my house and asked my dad whether he knew that I bowled “lovely, loopy stuff”, which of course he didn’t. I mean, I didn’t either. It was a total accident. I think I was trying to bowl as fast as I could in a game of Kwik Cricket. Yet as soon as I heard it, I felt like somehow it suited me.

Tufnell was, like me, a left-armer. He was bowling what resembled the loveliest, loopiest stuff you could ever imagine. His nickname was The Cat. He was obviously terrified of the ball. He batted 11. It was too much to be coincidence. I was the next Phil Tufnell in waiting. I read his book.

It got better. It turns out you didn’t really even need to try that hard to play for England; it just kind of happens. He visibly projected and promoted apathy and scruffiness. He smoked. He strolled around like even he wasn’t taking it seriously. When he came out to bat that day, he received a standing ovation. I absorbed it as a total celebration of character, acceptance of an outsider, a truly magic moment. He was the anti-gladiator. It’s hard to explain to people now that the guy who desperately tries to fluff up Matt Dawson’s jokes on A Question of Sport and occasionally does puff pieces about cats or old people on The One Show was my hero. But back then, he really was. He and anyone who played guitar.

It was the climax to a year in which cricket had quickly gathered momentum in my head. Earlier that summer, we had gone to see Surrey play one-day cricket on a Wednesday afternoon. We told school we’d all caught the flu, probably off each other, “probably due to stress”. The game was on Sky. Unbeknownst to us, there was Sky in the staff room. The ground was empty and we were the focal point of “crowd” cutaways. I spent the next Wednesday evening locked in a classroom writing an essay on the importance of honesty. It didn’t mention that I’d shouted “Ben!” at Ben Hollioake, who had turned and smiled broadly back, and that the moment was worth a dozen detentions.

Naturally, it was the beginning of county cricket fan wildlife spotting, and it wasn’t all roses. I can clearly recall things about it I didn’t like. I didn’t like overhearing City boys in rugby shirts shouting “Cracking tits Jonesy”, and I didn’t like pavilion members looking over their shoulders and tutting and hissing at you. I still don’t. It confused me about what liking cricket meant about me.

Sometimes I’m still not sure what the answer to that is. I was consoled, for the most part, that it was rare enough and easily avoided. It served as the first warning of some of the confusing contradictions and peripherals in cricket that came with the territory. I’m not sure I really particularly loved people coming dressed as hot dogs in the name of fun either. Time though, has rendered them as comparatively harmless in my mind.

Meanwhile, my school cricket career was not going as I had hoped. Even at 14, it was becoming clear that being a spinner who didn’t spin it was not really going to work out, however much I reiterated to teammates that it was termed “slow left-arm” for a reason. By the end of the season, when I came on to bowl, the team instinctively and without instruction formed a ring on the outskirts of the boundary. It was kind of lovely, very loopy, and the already man-sized middle-order batsmen from schools in Kent teed off.

Music began to take over my life and I banked that, despite being pretty unlikely, it was a more realistic and less dangerous pipe dream. It transpired that what Phil Tufnell didn’t mention in his book is that he was obviously naturally very, very good and always working harder than he let on. I suppose he had something that the greatest musicians possess: the ability to make something that has taken a lot of effort look effortless.

I don’t know if I was aware of it at the time – from what I could gather we had always lost and always would do – but 1999 was a well documented and necessary rebirth for English cricket. Darren Maddy, despite his outside-edge chasing down efforts, would not last much longer, but he will always have played his part in my head. Starting at the bottom is pretty liberating and witnessing the nadir had set some kind of commitment in me that I knew was more than passing. So much so that when Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe chased down a Test series win in the pitch black in Karachi a year later, as much as it being their victory, somehow it felt a little bit like mine too.