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Johnson column: England collapses come sooner than the changing of the tides

By Martin Johnson

What, would you say, has been the piece of commentary most likely to send shivers down the spine of TMS listeners down the years? “And now it’s Shane Warne/Glenn McGrath coming on to bowl from the pavilion end”, “Up in the air it goes, and it’s Monty Panesar/Phil Tufnell underneath it”, “And after a word from Vic Marks, it will be Geoffrey Boycott.”

All of these would be worthy entries, but for my money the clear winner is: “And now, with England 110 without loss, Radio Four listeners will be leaving us for the Shipping Forecast.” That terrible moment when you know that in the length of time it takes to say: “West backing south or south west, three or four, occasionally five, except in Humber, showers later, good….” England’s wheels will have flown off to all parts of the compass.

“And we welcome back Radio Four listeners with the news that England are 111-6, still needing another 240 to avoid the follow-on”. “Bloody hell,” you think. “You can’t even nip out to the kitchen for a cup of tea with this lot.” However, it never comes as any great surprise.

Every country has its national identity symbols. For the French it’s a baguette, a beret, and the Eiffel Tower. And for us, it’s the Royal Family, warm beer, the Beatles, fish and chips, and the England batting collapse.

There’s always one just around the corner, but at no time is it more inevitable than when things are going well. Ergo, as soon as England took a 2-0 series lead against India, we knew that bad news was on the way.

England coach Trevor Bayliss dutifully appeared in front of the cameras to say that losing all ten wickets in a single session at Trent Bridge was a jolly poor show, and Bob Willis wanted everyone responsible incarcerated in the Tower of London, but deep down no-one was in the slightest bit bothered by what is an essential part of England’s DNA.

As England collapses go, it was actually one of their tamer efforts, and not in remotely the same class as, say, the 46 all out in Trinidad in 1994. This one happened in such a blur of destruction that even the more seasoned hacks in the Press box cracked under the strain of the time difference, and having to deliver coherent descriptions back to London, over three separate editions in an era when copy was still sent over a dodgy telephone connection.

“Bloody hell, there goes another one!” “Hello? Could you change that from England made a poor start to England made a shocking start….” “What? Who’s out now? Hang on mate, can you change that to….how was he out again? Yes, I know we’re bang on deadline, but….(background noise of crowd erupting) “flipping ’eck, can you change that to disastrous start…..”

What made that one stand out against some stiff competition was that this was a Test match England were actually winning easily on the fourth afternoon.

The West Indies were 60 runs ahead with only five second innings wickets left, one of them that of the 19-year-old Shiv Chanderpaul in only his second Test. However, when Graeme Hick twice dropped simple slip catches, and Chanderpaul got a bit of help from the tail, England needed 198 to win when they finally begun their run chase after tea.

The captain, Michael Atherton, went first ball to Curtly Ambrose, Mark Ramprakash managed to get himself run out going for a second to fine leg, and it was 5-3 when Robin Smith lost his leg stump. I remember Andrew Caddick (6-65) giving a TV interview on the boundary when the fifth wicket went down at 26, and having to leg it back to the dressing room to get his pads on.

Ian Salisbury came in as nightwatchman at that point, making us all wonder who exactly he’d been appointed to protect, but he went for a duck, and it was 40-8 at stumps. Heroically, though, the last two wickets added six more on the final morning, thus pipping by one England’s lowest ever Test score of 45 against Australia in 1887.

That’s another thing about England. If it wasn’t for a tradition of heroic late order resistance that 45 would be long gone as the lowest total. They were 26-7 against the West Indies in Kingston in 2007 before recovering to 51 all out, and 27-9 in Auckland this March before a last wicket stand of 31 between Craig Overton and Jimmy Anderson. But it’s the collapse from commanding positions at which England really excel, and never have they achieved such consistency in this area than on their 1990-91 tour to Australia, when they kicked off the series in Brisbane by going from 117-2 to 194 all out in their first innings, to 42-1 to 114 all out in their second.

Thus, when they made 352 in their first innings in the next Test, the Melbourne Age waded in with a sarcastic back page headline: “A Strange Day At The Cricket. England Fails To Collapse.” However, normal service was quickly resumed second time around, when 103-1 became 150 all out.

This was the tour which had everything, the Tiger Moth affair, and, in that same Test at the MCG, the only known instance of a umpire (non-neutral in those days) sledging a player. “How many have I got left in the over, ump?” inquired Phil Tufnell of Peter McConnell. To which the Australian replied: “Count ’em yerself yer Pommy bastard.”

Most of England’s better collapses have been reserved for Australia, and none was more embarrassing than Adelaide 2006, after Andrew Flintoff had had the rare luxury of a first innings declaration at 551-6.

Second time around, however, with a draw odds on, England went from 69-1 to 129 all out, and lost by six wickets.

This ended up as a 5-0 whitewash, although when England returned in 2010-11, Andrew Strauss’ team thumped a Warne and McGrath-less Australia 3-1.

But at the precise moment England took the wicket that gave them an Ashes series victory in Australia for the first time since 1986, guess what TMS listeners were tuned into? You’ve got it. The Shipping Forecast.

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