You Spin Me Right Round

how england turned sharply from despair to elation in two and a half days of drama at the Oval.

This was originally published in Wisden cricket journal The Nightwatchman for their special edition commemorating the 100th Test Match at the Oval in summer 2017.

It’s summer 1997, and a wind of optimism is gusting across Britain: New Labour’s Downing Street honeymoon is in full swing, ‘Cool Britannia’ is at its zenith, Harry Potter appears on bookshelves for the first time, and the UK even wins the Eurovision Song Contest. Dwarfing all of that, though, could something far more momentous be brewing in the world of cricket? Having thrashed Australia in the first Test at Edgbaston, England possess a one-nil lead in the Ashes and have a golden opportunity to regain the urn: can they turn the tables on the last four series and end eight years of hurt?

We all know the answer. Skittling the Aussies in Birmingham for 118 proved to be the falsest of dawns and the Baggy Green machine soon cranked into overdrive, hammering England and taking an unassailable 3-1 series lead. Then the Ashes circus made its traditional last stop at The Oval, and something remarkable happened. The Australians must surely have been scenting yet more Pommie blood but instead the old ground saw one of its most spectacular Ashes matches of all time, and I saw the most thrilling England win of my whole life, when a certain bad-boy Middlesex spinner took on the Master and bested him at his own game.

On a string: Phil Tufnell's finest hour, as he demolished the Aussies at the Oval, 1997

On a string: Phil Tufnell's finest hour, as he demolished the Aussies at the Oval, 1997

I know what you’re thinking. “But it was a dead rubber!” and “What about 2005? That was much more exciting!” Fair points both, but England cricket in the Nineties has very few advocates and in the midst of what was a desert of mediocrity the magical ’97 moment stands out as one of the team’s most underrated wins. It’s high time the dust was blown off this epic encounter.

The truth is that these days England fans are frankly spoiled rotten with Ashes series wins. Alastair Cook has won three of them as captain and (at time of writing) before battle is joined again in late 2017 he looks certain to be replaced as skipper. If Michael Atherton had achieved just one of the damn things in the Nineties he’d have been pickled in formaldehyde and placed in the Lord’s museum for posterity faster than you can say “nicked it to the keeper”. Going into this final Test, the aggregate score between the teams for the decade was a numbing 13-3 to Australia. In fact so great was the chasm separating the old enemies that until the Oval my abiding memory of the series, as a callow seventeen-year-old, was of driving to Dorset with a friend’s family during the fifth Test as we listened to crackly long-wave Test Match Special on the car radio, and being genuinely thrilled as last-man-in Devon Malcolm clouted three imperious boundaries at Trent Bridge against a promising young bowler named Glenn McGrath to bring up a hundred against Australia.

For context it should be added that England were miles behind in the game and hurtling to another thumping defeat, and that Devon’s hundred was in fact an aggregate total across his whole career rather than an orthodox century. These details take the shine off the memory a bit in hindsight, but back then that was just small print. We’d been pummelled so hard for so long that Devon’s impetuous cameo seemed in its own way like a victory. Yes it caused barely a scratch but all the same it felt heroic, like Spartan king Leonidas - leader of the 300 - proving that before the Battle of Thermopylae was over even the Persian God King Xerxes could bleed. (For the record, Devon was promptly clean-bowled by McGrath without scoring another run).

That’s the inglorious setting in which this avid fan switched on the TV for the sixth and final Test, a time when the word ‘test’ itself seemed to be aimed at the patience of the viewer. As the England team turned up in South London they would have been within their rights to wonder if they really deserved the ignominy being heaped upon them for another catastrophic failure, because it’s not as if they were that terrible. Unlike their 2016 football counterparts who were knocked out of the Euros by plucky Iceland, the 1997 vintage of England cricket contained names who still echo amongst the greats - Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, and Gough. For the team’s whole to be so much less than the sum of these parts was a twisted achievement of sorts, and also of course a testament to the skill and ruthlessness of Australia. After all, here were the twin Torquemadas McGrath and Warne at their impish youthful best, lining up alongside captain Mark Taylor, a pair of Waughs and a novice middle-order batsman called Ricky Ponting. Meanwhile England chopped and changed their line-up all summer, and for the Oval brought back Mark Butcher and Mark Ramprakash to the top six, with Lancashire seamer Peter Martin bolstering the seam attack: now there’s a phrase to wring a wry smile out of any long-suffering Nineties England fan.

The headline change, though, was to the spin department and the replacement of Robert Croft with a certain Philip Clive Roderick Tufnell. All summer long, the selectors had declined to pick the “bad boy of English cricket”, and so he’d toiled away in the badlands of the county scene instead of taking the battle to the Aussies. Now, with the series gone and caution thrown belatedly to the wind, Tufnell was restored to the team in Kennington and - perhaps more than ever in his colourful career - he had a point to prove.

Tuffers was made to wait, though. England won the toss and elected to bat - for a mere 54 overs as it happens as they racked up a paltry 180, with local hero Alec Stewart top-scoring thanks to a relatively gung-ho 36 in 104 balls. Who was wreaking havoc with our poor batsmen? Why, a certain GD McGrath, who finished the innings with 7/76 and a beaming smile, backed up by two wickets from Spinmeister General Warne. So it was in familiar adversity that England took the field before the close of play on day one. The Australian openers Taylor and Matthew Elliott must have been licking their lips as they eyed the new-ball pair of Malcolm and Martin, who sound like a folk music duo and turned out to be just about as threatening. Finally at 4:50pm Atherton turned to his recalled spinner and Tuffers went to work. In short order he removed first Elliott and then the well-set (nay thick-set) Taylor, leaving the Aussies 77/2 at the close of play and a spin bowler hungry for more.

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When the match resumed next morning, even from the TV pictures it was clear that the gleam in the Cat’s eye was still there. This wasn’t Tuffers the future King of the Jungle, Tuffers the cheeky chappie, Tuffers the Clown; this was Tuffers the international-class spinner. He’s always so self-deprecating on camera and in commentary that younger fans might not know that this guy could really bowl. Standing at his mark, shirt baggier than his teammates’, exuding a need to prove his exilers wrong and with a zeal for Australian scalps, he was a weapon England had denied themselves all summer. Not always reliable but potentially devastating when the flight was right, he was the Scud of spinners and here in the Vauxhall sunshine his targeting systems worked beautifully, locked on the task of bagging Baggy Greens. For fans if not management Tuffers truly belonged in this team. His unique run-up and action were a sight for sore eyes: hair flopping as he tossed himself a catch; then the trademark skip that launched him towards the crease and finally the delivery itself, propelled with a guile and subtlety that only Graeme Swann among his countrymen has matched in the two decades since.

Not that I didn’t try. As my school’s resident left-arm (B team) spinner I carefully copied both the Cat’s style and his fondness for naps in my cricket career, with mixed results. Nonetheless he was my sporting hero and these were his finest hours. Tuffers bowled 34.3 unchanged overs and heaved England back into the match with a mesmerising display backed up by surprisingly excellent fielding, especially by the ageing Stewart behind the stumps. Perhaps inspired by playing on his home ground, Stewie took a spectacular tumbling catch to send Greg Blewett packing for 45 and followed up with an even more unusual piece of work to remove the obdurate Ian Healy, who’d spent fifty minutes amassing a grand score of two before he edged to the Surrey keeper’s groin and was out caught between his legs. As the TV pundits remarked, it doesn’t matter where you catch them; they all count. Tuffers finished with 7 for 64 and took the key credit for restricting this intimidating Aussie batting order to just 220, a lead of a mere 40 runs. In the context of the series and recent Ashes history this riposte could not have been more sorely desired.

England being England, it was only the start of the carnage. Atherton’s men would have been desperate to prove that their first innings score of 180 was an aberration, but in the second dig they somehow contrived to do even worse and muster 163 all out, albeit on a pitch that was crumbling and offering help to seamers and spinners alike. This time the man inflicting most damage was a young and pacy Michael Kasprowicz, stepping up when Warne’s potency was blunted by a groin strain and supported by the ever-parsimonious McGrath, who in 1997 could scare batsmen with pace as well as menacing control. Yet within the rubble of the innings lay grains of comfort, as the total would have surely been only in two figures had it not been for an inspired partnership of 79 between Thorpe and Ramprakash. Under assault from the Aussie attack, these two most stylish England batsmen of their generation fought back with an array of thunderous cuts, elegant drives and one beautiful forward-of-square sweep from Ramps that in years to come would be repeated here at the Oval countless times for Surrey, if only fleetingly in Tests.

Mainly thanks to their efforts England scraped to a meagre 124-run lead and now faced the Herculean task of defending it against belligerent and cocky opponents, in the vain hope of clawing back some pride. Inevitably whispers of Headingley 1981 floated through the air as the Oval’s stands thronged with hope-filled fans, and then came a chink of light: Elliott trapped lbw by Malcolm. Replays showed the ball strike the batsman suspiciously high above the knee-roll, but who cares? Australia were 5 for 1. It couldn’t happen, could it? For teenagers like me too young to remember Botham’s heroics, this was as exciting as the Ashes had ever been. Devon’s radar could be as wayward as Steve Harmison but he was just as lethal when he got it right.

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Now that he’d prised the door open the duo of Andy Caddick and Tufnell took control and respectively wheedled out Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh, the latter thanks to the ball of the match from Tuffers: luring the most graceful of Aussie batsman into prodding tentatively and deflecting the ball from his glove to Nasser Hussain at slip. As Tony Lewis remarked on commentary, “Every ball’s a hand grenade now.” Wickets continued to fall but the flow of runs could not be staunched, and with the score at 77/5, Tuffers leaked three byes and the pendulum swung back to Taylor’s men. Just as at Edgbaston in 2005, each wicket was a slingshot blow towards felling Goliath while every run was a tiny dagger to English hearts.

Then Tufnell reached into his bag of magic tricks and produced an artful ball that teased Ponting forwards and bit the pitch, turning from leg to off just enough to evade his bat and glance the back pad instead: LBW. 88/6. Ponting was naturally furious while the Cat was in euphorics, pointing to the sky with fiery glee. Caddick followed up with an almost comical catch off his own bowling, sticking out a giant paw and juggling three times until he finally snaffled Healy’s slog-drive to leave the Aussies 92/7. The door was open, and when Kasprowicz and a clearly injured Warne both ballooned catches, it was almost swinging off its hinges. The score was 99/9 and a famous turnaround was in touching distance: could it become reality?

Glenn McGrath had always dreamed of scoring the winning runs in a Test match and, displaying typical fighting spirit as he strutted to the crease with just 26 required, he probably fancied his chances. As I perched on the edge of a Croydon living room sofa, weighed down by a decade of cricketing misery, I did too. With the scoreboard reading 104, in came Tuffers again, spinning another catch, skipping up to the stumps, ripping the ball and loosing another salvo at McGrath: Glenn miscues his leg glance, the ball spoons to mid-off, Thorpe dives forward, and then elation. No sooner is Thorpe on his feet but he’s sprinting off the field, chased to the pavilion by a gaggle of overjoyed team-mates as thousands of fans pour onto the hallowed Oval turf in raptures at this rare feeling: victory.

A dead rubber? Not a bit of it. Even if the urn wasn’t up for grabs, this was two and a half days of madcap Ashes drama that really mattered. Richie Benaud proclaimed that he hadn’t seen a crowd so big at the ground since 1953, while Michael Atherton is on record as saying it’s his favourite Ashes memory, and he’s a man who chooses his words (if not always his shots) carefully. And what can we say about Tuffers? He finished the match with a career-best 11 wickets for 93, the Man of the Match award and personal redemption. It’s a triumph that remains laced with the nagging doubt of what could have been: if he’d been selected more regularly, managed more sympathetically, and just a little less naughty, could PCR Tufnell have been England’s greatest modern spinner? I prefer not to think of that, and instead chalk him up alongside other cavalier sporting greats like Jimmy White, Henri Leconte and the 1982 Brazil World Cup team: talents who might not have achieved everything they were capable of but who did something even more wonderful: they truly entertained.

This is what makes the 1997 Oval Test stand out. In the cold light of the record books it might not be deemed as important as a series win but here was a player who personified a team who’d been maligned for years, enjoying just a little bit of payback. In its own unique way this was even better.