(Left) England's dejected team led by Nasser Hussain. The political issue for Zimbabwe overshadowed cricket © Getty Images
(Left) England’s dejected team led by Nasser Hussain. The political issue for Zimbabwe overshadowed cricket © Getty Images

The story of ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 was a familiar one for long-term England fans: it was the sixth consecutive such tournament in which their team had failed to reach the semi-finals. Over that period they have shown sporadic bursts of competence, interspersed among prolonged spells of awfulness. In the third part of the series, Michael Jones reviews the story of England’s 2003 campaign, which started with a political debate over whether they should play their first match, and ended with the chance of victory against Australia being snatched from under their noses.

For once, the main topic of conversation preoccupying the English media in the run-up to a global tournament was not England’s preparation or selection, but whether they would fulfil all their fixtures. Although the majority of the tournament was to be hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe were scheduled to play all their group matches at home, and with Robert Mugabe’s regime in the international spotlight for human rights abuses, there was considerable debate over whether or not England should play in Harare.

Lengthy negotiations went on between England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and International Cricket Council (ICC), when on the morning of their team’s opening fixture against Namibia, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga donned black armbands and released a statement that they were mourning “the death of democracy in Zimbabwe”. The political issue overshadowed the cricket, and the calls for England to boycott the match grew more vocal; the ICC refused to accede to the ECB’s request to move the fixture to South Africa, and it was eventually decided that they would not play, thus starting the tournament with a loss by default.

Percy Sonn, then President of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (and subsequently of ICC) complained that England’s boycott was “having a negative impact on our World Cup”, and called for South Africa to cancel their tour of England the following year in retaliation. Sonn was censured for his rant, and went on to prove that he was perfectly capable of having a negative impact on the tournament without anyone else’s assistance — when at a subsequent group match he partook to excess of the hospitality offered, let rip with an alcohol-fuelled tirade against England and, according to one witness, “literally fell out of his pants”.

When England finally took to the field, it was against Netherlands — still some years away from seriously challenging the Test teams — and the result was never in doubt after James Anderson wrecked the top order to leave them 31 for 5. Tim de Leede’s unbeaten 58 partially revived the innings, and Jeroen Smits at No. 11 hung around long enough to ensure that Netherlands batted out the full 50 overs, but reached only 142 for 9; Anderson was the pick of the bowlers with 4 for 29. Fifties from Nick Knight and Michael Vaughan saw England to their target with six wickets and more than half the allotted overs to spare — having apparently learned their lesson from their elimination on run rate in the previous tournament, they made more of an attempt to maximise it this time, with Ian Blackwell hitting 22 off 11 balls to finish the job. Daan van Bunge, who would later gain an unwanted place in the record books by conceding six sixes in an over to Herschelle Gibbs, did rather better this time, with three for 16 off three overs.

On paper, the following match against Namibia should have been a pushover: not only were they not close to the level of the Test-playing countries, they were not even the leading Associate team. They had already been crushed by Zimbabwe and Pakistan, and later in the tournament would be bowled out for 45 by Australia. England somehow contrived to make heavy weather of the task: Rudi van Vuuren, a doctor who went on to make history by being the first player to appear in the World Cups of both cricket and rugby, produced the performance of his life. He dismissed Knight and Vaughan cheaply to finish his first spell with figures of 2 for 10 from six overs, than came back later to claim Craig White, Ronnie Irani and Andy Caddick in the last over of the innings for an eventual analysis of five for 43. Alec Stewart made 60, Marcus Trescothick 58, and England were all out for 272 off the last ball of the innings — some way short of what they might have hoped for against a theoretically weaker team.

Namibia’s reply started badly, with Stefan Swanepoel and Louis Burger falling in single figures, but Jan-Berrie Burger and Danie Keulder put a partnership together. Rain threatened throughout the innings, and as it passed the 20 over mark — the minimum required for a result under Duckworth-Lewis — the unthinkable became a very real threat: Namibia were ahead of the par score, and, if no further play had been possible, would have been declared the winners. They remained in front for more than 12 overs, a fact of which England turned out to have been blissfully ignorant: the task of keeping track of the par score had been entrusted to Trescothick, who misread the tables and incorrectly informed his team-mates that England were ahead. Burger tucked into the bowling with relish, helping himself to boundaries almost at will — but after White dismissed him for 85 off 86 balls, the innings folded. From 174 for three Namibia collapsed to 200 for nine; the last pair batted out the remaining overs and van Vuuren even hit Anderson’s last ball for six, but could not prevent a 55 run defeat.

In stark contrast to the previous match, what followed against Pakistan was a feat as rare for England in a World Cup as a penguin in the Sahara: a clinical demolition of a Test-playing opponent. Wasim Akram had Trescothick caught behind for a single, but Pakistani spectators’ attention was focused on Shoaib Akhtar’s contest with the speed gun: after being consistently clocked in the high 90s in his second over, he finally delivered the first ball to be officially recorded at 100 mph in an international match — not that it bothered the batsman, Knight, who pushed it away comfortably. In straining for speed, however, Shoaib appeared to have forgotten the more important considerations of taking wickets and stopping runs: his next over went for 13 including a six by Knight, and when Vaughan took 11 off the one after that, Shoaib was taken off. Although he dismissed Vaughan in the first over of his second spell, he finished with one for 63 off nine overs, easily the worst return among the six bowlers used. Vaughan made 52, Paul Collingwood guided the second half of the innings with an unbeaten 66, and England reached 246 for 8.

In Pakistan’s reply, Shahid Afridi took his usual “all or nothing” approach: he hit Andy Caddick for six, but was caught behind next ball. In the following over Anderson claimed the prize wickets of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Yousuf Youhana (as Mohammad Yousuf was then known) for a golden duck apiece, and at 17 for 3 the “cornered tigers” were close to being tranquilised. Younis Khan hung around for 11 overs but scored only five. Then Anderson claimed two wickets in an over for the second time in the innings — sending back Saeed Anwar and Rashid Latif — to end the match as a contest. When one W — White — dismissed two others — Wasim and Waqar — in the space of four balls, Pakistan were 80 for 9. Shoaib contributed rather more with the willow than he had with the leather, thrashing 43 off just 16 balls — still the highest score by a No. 11 in an ODI — but it was too little, too late. After White had disappeared for 21 in one over, Shoaib added another six and four in Flintoff’s next but then took one swing too many and saw his stumps rearranged. Pakistan were all out for 134 in only 31 overs, to lose by 112 runs. Anderson finished with four for 29, White three for 33; aside from Shoaib, only Saeed Anwar, with 29, scored more than 12.

After the default loss, England had won three matches in succession. From a glance at the table they looked well-placed to qualify: they were level with India on three wins out of four, behind only Australia’s four. Pakistan and Zimbabwe had two wins each, while both the Associates had lost every match. The snag was that they had already faced what were likely to be their two easiest opponents, but had India and Australia still to play.

Once again, all of India’s top order contributed — Sachin Tendulkar anchoring the innings with 50, Rahul Dravid following up with 62 and Yuvraj Singh applying the finishing touch with 42 off 38 balls. They lost wickets off the last four balls of the innings — without a hat-trick, since the third of them was a run out — but by that point had already posted 250, a tough target by the less run-crazy standards of the time, and in particular when batting under lights: no team had successfully chased that many in the tournament. Flintoff broke the opening partnership by holding onto a return catch from Virender Sehwag, added the key wicket of Tendulkar and conceded only 15 off his ten overs — strangling the middle of the innings after the rest of the attack had been profligate. Once he had completed his allocation, Dravid and Yuvraj resumed making hay against the others: Caddick, Anderson and White conceded 69, 61 and 57 respectively off their ten overs, although the three wickets at the end served to ameliorate Caddick’s figures somewhat.

From the moment Knight pushed Srinath’s first ball to mid-off, set off for a suicidal single and was run out by Mohammad Kaif’s diving throw, England never looked like getting the required runs. In the seventh over, Trescothick tried to hook Zaheer Khan and skied a catch; after that it was all about one man. Ashish Nehra had not even played in India’s first two matches, then failed to take a wicket in seven overs against Zimbabwe and only bowled one ball against Namibia before slipping in his delivery stride and hobbling off with an injured ankle. By the morning of the England match, the ankle was still swollen and there had been some doubt as to whether he would play.

Now, in his third over, he induced Hussain into edging a catch behind, then trapped Stewart plumb in front first ball. In his fourth Vaughan gave another catch to Dravid, and at 62 for five there was no way back for England. Bowling his ten overs unchanged, Nehra added the wickets of Collingwood, White and Irani to finish with six for 23 — still the best bowling figures for India in a World Cup match, and at the time the third-best for anyone. From 107 for 8, Flintoff salvaged some semblance of respectability from the innings with a 73-ball 64 including three sixes, but Srinath came back to dismiss him and Zaheer finished the job with the wicket of Anderson, sealing an 82-run win. Unlike four years earlier, a defeat to India did not eliminate England from the tournament for definite, but it certainly dented their chances of qualifying.

Elsewhere, Australia annihilated Namibia — Glenn McGrath claiming 7 for 15 as the Associate team were bowled out for 45 in just 14 overs — and Zimbabwe completed a comfortable win over Netherlands. India rounded off the group stage with their customary victory against Pakistan, and with three matches remaining, both they and Australia, with five wins each — though Australia had one match still to play — had ensured qualification for the Super Sixes. England and Zimbabwe, each with three wins out of five (in Zimbabwe’s case, including one by default), were fighting it out for the third qualifying spot — although Pakistan, on two wins, could still make it through on run rate if they beat Zimbabwe and England lost to Australia. The match between Netherlands and Namibia was only relevant in determining which of them would take the wooden spoon in the group.

Beating Australia on demand seemed unlikely, given the pattern which matches between the two teams had usually followed over the preceding decade, but for once England got off to a promising start. Trescothick showed some intent by taking two fours off McGrath’s opening over, and shortly afterwards hit Brett Lee for six. Knight scored equally freely at the other end, and after nine overs England had strolled to 66 without loss; Lee was taken off after conceding 33 off his first four. Ponting turned instead to Andy Bichel, who had spent most of the tournament as Australia’s twelfth man, making the starting line-up only against the two Associates.

In his first game of the tournament against Test-playing opposition, he needed only five balls to produce his first wicket: Knight edged one to Damien Martyn at slip, and England were 66 for 1. In his second over Bichel had Vaughan caught behind and bowled Hussain, to give himself figures of 3 for 3. McGrath dismissed Trescothick at the other end, and 66 for none had become 74 for 4: another traditional England collapse looked on the cards. Collingwood hit Brad Hogg for six but fell to Bichel at the other end; 87 for 5, and Bichel had 4 for 10 from five overs. Any momentum built up by the opening partnership had disappeared down the plughole.

Bichel was taken off after six overs, leaving Stewart and Flintoff to mount the recovery effort against Lee, Hogg and the gentle left arm spin of Darren Lehmann. Progress was slow — they went twelve overs without a boundary — but they hung on. When Andrew Symonds was introduced into the attack, Flintoff opened up, hitting him for four and six in his first over. They had added 84 in 22 overs when Bichel was brought back; his seventh over was safely negotiated, but in the eighth Flintoff miscued one straight up in the air and Gilchrist pouched it on the way down. England were 177 for six; Bichel had five for 15. He bowled Stewart in his ninth over and added the wicket of Giles in his last to finish with 7 for 20 — still the best analysis against a Test-playing opponent in a World Cup match, behind only McGrath’s 7 for 15 against Namibia three days earlier; it was all the more remarkable given that the rest of Australia’s attack — minus Shane Warne, who had been banned from the tournament for inadvertently taking a banned substance in a weight-loss pill, but including McGrath and Lee — took one for 181 between them. With Bichel bowled out, White and Caddick played out the last three overs; in stark contrast to today’s scoring rates, England added only 33 off the last ten, with a four by White off Lee in the last over the only boundary in that period. They finished on 204 for 8 — a considerable recovery from 87 for 5, but unlikely to be enough against Australia.

Gilchrist started Australia’s reply in typically explosive fashion, taking three fours off Anderson’s opening over, but it was turning into a good match for bowlers named Andy: Caddick struck back in the next over as Hayden skied a pull and Giles took the chance at mid-on. Gilchrist hit a couple more boundaries before carving one to third man, where Vaughan juggled with the ball before eventually holding on. He had made 22 off 18 balls; Martyn had made nought off three when he was struck in front, and sent on his way despite some doubt as to whether the ball would have kept low enough to hit the stumps. Australia were 33 for 3 — Caddick 3 for 13 — and suddenly England were on top. Four overs later Caddick pitched one short to Ponting, and saw it disappear over square leg for six. He tried another one in the same area; the second time Ponting misjudged the shot and was caught at long leg. 48 for 4.

Bevan and Lehmann dug in; they weren’t scoring particularly quickly, but with an asking rate only slightly above four runs per over, they didn’t need to. Keeping the scoreboard ticking over was sufficient, and Australia reached the halfway point of the innings at 96 for no further loss. The partnership had reached 63 when Lehmann edged one from his brother-in-law White, and was caught behind. In the next over 111 for 5 became 112 for 6 as Symonds attempted a drive off Giles and was caught and bowled for a duck. White bowled a maiden to Bevan, then Giles struck again, having Hogg caught behind: 114 for 7. Lee, as England found at Edgbaston two years later, was no mug with the bat: he held up an end while Bevan hit Giles for six. They pushed the singles for a few overs before Bevan called for one too many, and White’s direct hit sent back Lee. 135 for 8: Australia still required 70 to win from 74 balls, with Bichel joining Bevan at the crease and only McGrath to come. Victory, and with it a place in the Super Sixes, seemed assured… but it had seemed that way four years earlier too.

Bichel started with a four off Anderson, Bevan picked up a couple of boundaries of his own; Australia needed 55 off the last ten overs. As the partnership started to build and Australian hopes were raised, Mark Taylor in the commentary box murmured “If you don’t beat us now, you’ll never beat us”. A couple of quiet overs saw the required run rate rise to almost one per ball, with both batsmen acutely aware that if either of them got out, the remaining one would have to attempt to get the runs with McGrath at the other end.

Two more boundaries kept the rate within reach, then with four overs remaining and 23 runs required, Hussain took the counter-intuitive decision to remove Caddick (who had taken 4 for 35 from nine overs up to that point) from the attack, and replace him with Anderson (no wicket for 48 off seven). Anderson conceded only three singles from the first five balls of the over, but Bevan got the last ball away for three to reduce the target to 17 from 18 balls.

Giles kept them down to another three singles in the 48th over, and Hussain persisted with Anderson for the 49th, with 14 needed. It proved the decisive mistake: after Bevan took a single from the first ball of the over, Bichel smashed the second over midwicket for six. The third beat mid-on’s chase to the boundary, and only three runs were required off nine balls. Bichel took one more single; Anderson managed to finish the over with two dot balls to Bevan, but the damage was done.

The chase had come down to the last over, but it was asking too much of Flintoff to defend a target of two from it. Bichel failed to score off the first ball, then drove the second straight back to the bowler, who got enough of a hand to it to prevent a run. The third was hit to mid-on, where Vaughan let it through his legs to concede the single which leveled the scores. There was little chance that Bevan, the consummate “finisher”, would fail to score one run off three balls, and he duly finished the job with a four off the next, sealing victory by two wickets with two balls to spare — perhaps his greatest “finish” of all.

The fielders sank to their knees, barely able to believe what had happened; from a position where they were seemingly assured of victory, somehow it had slipped away. The ninth wicket partnership added an unbroken 73, in which Bichel matched Bevan run for run, to complete one of the greatest all-round performances in World Cup history; the Man of the Match award was a formality.

It was Australia’s 12th consecutive victory in ODIs, breaking the existing record set by West Indies in 1984; by rampaging through the remainder of the World Cup and the first four matches of a subsequent series in West Indies, they extended the sequence to an incredible 21, a record which has not even been approached since. Taylor’s prediction turned out to be correct: England have still not beaten Australia in a World Cup match since 1992, although they have only played three matches in that time — mostly because, if Australia were in the other group, England didn’t stay in the tournament long enough to play them.

Despite the loss, England still retained a chance of qualifying for the Super Sixes: if Pakistan beat Zimbabwe in the final match in the group, both of those teams and England would finish on same points. A large enough victory for Pakistan would send their net run rate above England’s and secure them the qualifying spot, but a narrow win would leave England with the best net run rate of the three. As it was, the start of the match was delayed by rain, and when Pakistan’s innings finally got under way, it was interrupted in only the second over. They had stumbled to 73 for 3 in 14 overs when the rain returned, and this time it didn’t stop; the two points Zimbabwe gained from the “no result” were enough to send them through to the next stage at the expense of England, for the second World Cup in succession. This time it was Pakistan who failed to beat another Test-playing country (and finished fifth); Zimbabwe failed to do so on the pitch, but qualified anyway thanks to the points from England’s forfeiture.

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