Cricket: Calamitous collapse by England

Fourth Test: Selectors face difficult choices after another batting surrender hands New Zealand series victory

IT IS the fact that has been insinuating itself all summer as our finest cricketers lurched from one crisis to another. Yesterday at 1.50pm, as Alan Mullally skied Chris Cairns for a simple catch to mid- on, it became official: England are the worst Test team in the world.

If that sounds appalling, it should surprise no-one as the evidence has been mounting for a while. But for rain in Manchester, and a collective choke by the New Zealand bowlers in the second innings at Edgbaston, the series could have been lost 4-0 and not 2-1. Between two sides of mainly modest ability, it is a desperate and depressing fact.

Afterwards, Nasser Hussain, close to tears, spoke of the experience of losing a series to a team previously languishing at the bottom of the pile. In fact, before this series, New Zealand had won just two Tests out of 40 played in England. This victory doubles that.

"I am very proud of my team and the way they fought," said Hussain, after his third Test in charge. "They have done everything I asked of them here, regarding fight and body language. If they play like that in the future, they won't go far wrong. We lost to a better side in a great Test match."

Before yesterday, Hussain, along with Andy Caddick, had been one of the most impressive parts of England's calamitous summer. Perhaps too choked to be entirely honest, he must now realise what a huge task lies ahead. Apart from looking ill-equipped to cope with Test cricket, his team appear to have a flawed temperament as well. He may not have said so publicly, but the selection meeting for the winter tour cannot be concluded before a long, hard look into English cricket's soul.

The batting has been the main problem for both sides. England's in particular have played with all the consistency and gumption of a soggy bread pudding, and the 246 they needed batting last was always likely to be beyond them providing the Kiwi bowlers kept things simple on a pitch whose surface was disintegrating by the ball.

They did, and once Michael Atherton was fourth out for 64 with 102 runs still needed, the route to defeat was always likely to be swift. In fact it took just eight overs for England to lose their remaining seven wickets, the match and the series.

The capitulation made for a grim spectacle, but then you can't get highly- polished gems from a domestic system designed to produce ball bearings. The hopes of England being in the top two of world cricket, as Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board hopes, will never happen so long as first-class cricket retains its comfort zones and soft underbelly.

The cricket in this series, mainly poor but leavened by the occasional burst of brilliance, has never been dull. The past few days at the Oval, so often a banker for England and one that has helped sugar-coat other moderate summers, has not wanted for entertainment.

When England began the day, they needed 155 runs with eight wickets standing. It may not seem much and on the evidence of the previous evening when Atherton and Graeme Thorpe counter-attacked, it may even have looked as if England were favourites. In fact with the pitch breaking up and with the overnight break allowing New Zealand to gather their thoughts, it was always going to require something special.

With Atherton, a seemingly omnipresent fixture in such situations, and Thorpe, no doubt unburdened by his decision not to tour this winter, at the crease, the task was not beyond them. If anything Thorpe would have been desperate to leave a little memento for his team-mates to remember him by when they face Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock at the Wanderers in November.

It was not to be, and having seen off the first salvo of Cairns and Dion Nash to extend his stand with Atherton to 78, the dual highest of the match, Thorpe fell to a fine outswinger from the left-arm Shayne O'Connor. The breach lifted the visitors, and Nash in particular. Following Daniel Vettori from the Pavilion End, Nash suddenly found himself on a hat-trick having removed Atherton and Mark Ramprakash in successive balls.

Atherton, despite an edgy start to the day, can perhaps consider himself slightly unfortunate to be caught off the bottom edge as he pulled at a short one that slowed slightly after going through the top. Ramprakash had no such excuse, lunging at a full-length ball well wide of off-stump. The edge brought a stunning diving catch from Adam Parore, who, judging by his celebrations, thought it was rather special as well.

The hat-trick, survived by Ronnie Irani, achieved little more than delay the inevitable, and then only by a few balls. Surviving a mix-up with Alec Stewart that should have seen him run out for nought, the Essex all- rounder watched his partner splice a hook off Nash, who had taken 3-4 in 12 balls, to Matthew Bell at square leg.

Considering consolidation was required it was a poor shot and one that lends credence to the theory that where England are concerned, even veterans like Stewart panic. With Irani edging Vettori in the second over after lunch, the prospect of watching England's three No 11's against bowlers scenting victory, quickly descended into high farce with Phil Tufnell being run out while diving to make his ground. Mullay then put a stop to proceedings by slogging Cairns' slower ball to Roger Twose at mid-on.

In a low-scoring match, as much a function of poor batting technique as the conditions that offered a small but firm helping hand to bowlers of all persuasions, one innings stood out. It also turned the match, and England's problem is that they had no-one to match its power or daring.

Chris Cairns, now 29, is the one world-class player on either side, but it has taken him 10 years to realise that. Indeed, his 80 from 94 balls in New Zealand's second innings may well be his finest moment, though with 19 wickets in the series, he has bowled superbly as well.

In some ways Cairns is a Kiwi Graeme Hick, except that his talents, so long in maturing, have secured victory for his team. Named as man of the match as well as New Zealand's player of the series, he is the enforcer, the creator, that England simply don't have, though Caddick, with 20 wickets, has done particularly well.

If neither side are entirely a one-man band, England are perilously close. In some ways, hitting rock bottom may have its advantages and force the game's powers into making radical reforms. If it doesn't - and they meet under the first class forum at Lord's today - they may well be reading its obituary.

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