The scariest Test England ever played: terror at the hands of West Indies

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Graham Gooch’s specialist subject is West Indian pace bowling. He is probably the leading authority on what it was like to face the four horsemen of the apocalypse. From 1980 to 1995, when the West Indies dominated Test cricket, nobody scored more runs against them than Gooch, and only Allan Border faced more deliveries. Gooch also played the greatest innings of all time, 154 not out at Headingley in 1991. It is worth listening, then, when he says that only once in his career did he feel unsafe: Friday at Sabina Park, the first day of a much anticipated series, and the start of a weekend festival of chin music.

England had a bespoke batting line-up full of men who didn’t understand the concept of pain, yet they were still brutalised inside three days. It was horror bingo: they had to contend with a corrugated pitch, a low sightscreen, an umpire with a laissez-faire attitude towards bouncers and the volcanic pace of the debutant Patrick Patterson. “It was the first time,” said Gooch, “I’d ever really got the whiff of danger in the nostrils.”

Related: Graham Gooch's finest hour: when the runs flowed in the face of fear | Mike Selvey

That smell wafted around the ground, all the way to the press box. The Times’ John Woodcock wrote that he thought somebody might be killed. Wisden Cricket Monthly said it was “cricket’s equivalent to the Somme”. The match was not televised because of a financial dispute between the BBC and the West Indies Cricket Board. You won’t find it on YouTube; you can’t buy it on a dodgy NTSC DVD from some bloke in Canada. It’s the last England Test match of which there is no footage. That’s both a shame, because we’ll never see it, and a blessing, because we’ll never see it. It could never be as vivid or as terrifying as it is in the imagination. The lack of footage makes it an almost mythical nightmare.

‘The most remarkable crap’

Five months earlier, it was the West Indies who were “quaking in their boots”. That was David Gower’s flippant comment on the Oval balcony after his England side regained the Ashes with consecutive innings victories. The 3-1 defeat of Australia followed a fine 2-1 win in India, and for many jumping to conclusions became irresistible – the trip to the Caribbean would decide which was the best team in the world. Even the experts thought England had an outside chance. At the start of the tour, the Guardian cricket correspondent Matthew Engel reflected the mood when he said “2-1 to the West Indies might be a reasonable guestimate”.

It was only 18 months since the West Indies had won 5-0 in England, but the common perception was that they had aged and England had matured. The argument for England said they had the best batting line-up in the world (in 1985 they averaged a whopping 52 runs per wicket, miles clear of everyone else ), and the best spin-bowling attack too. (Two Tests were to be played at Trinidad, which usually took spin.)

They had also picked three fast-bowling specialists: the batsmen David Smith and Peter Willey, two men who dark alleys were afraid to have walk down them, and the Glamorgan bowler Greg Thomas, often described as the fastest white bowler in the world. They had a solid seam attack and Ian Botham – who had bowled faster than ever during the Ashes – was overdue against the West Indies. By contrast, the Windies had an inexperienced captain in Viv Richards, and an ageing team with six regulars in their thirties. In 1985, they had even lost a Test match.

The main concern at the start of the tour was that England’s warm-up schedule – three first-class matches and an ODI before the first Test – would not be enough preparation. It turned out to be quite enough, thank you. In that time, morale, optimism and Mike Gatting’s nose all suffered enormous external and internal damage. A three-day pounding in the first Test at Sabina Park finished England off. It was the first time in history a team went 5-0 down after one Test.

England’s pre-series problems ranged from dreadful net facilities to politics, with four of the squad having been on the rebel tour of South Africa four years earlier. It was a particularly difficult time for Gower. His mother died just before the team flew out, a bereavement that was even tougher than usual for an only child whose father had died when he was younger, and whose long-term relationship was starting to break down. He and Botham, who had completed his first 1,000-mile charity walk at the end of 1985, were rested from the opening match and were on a yacht supping beers while England were being spun out for 94 by the Windward Islands, the only team in the Shell Shield with no West Indian cricketers. England lost by seven wickets and there were many pious editorials about Gower’s absence, some of them from people who regularly got pissed on the job, never mind off it.

  • David Gower and Ian Botham recreate Duran Duran’s Rio video, David Smith has some downtime after doing battle with the West Indies quicks and Phil Edmonds shows off his war wounds after the first Test. Photographs: Getty Images; Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

Much of the media coverage had a freestyle approach to empathy and honesty. This was the height of the tabloid war, and as the tour went on Botham became so paranoid that he hardly left his hotel room in the evening. Allegations ranged from the England players leaving broken glass on a hotel tennis court to Botham and Lindy Field, a former Miss Barbados, and unproven accusations of breaking a bed during a night of sex and snort. When Gower sat down for a press conference before the one-day series, he was asked matter-of-factly whether his poor personal form was due to his affair with Paul Downton’s wife. Downton was England’s first-choice wicketkeeper, so it would have been some story were it true. The evidence of Gower’s affair was a picture of him kissing Mrs Downton on the cheek, at her wedding.

“There was one bloke in particular – a freelance hitman – sending back the most remarkable crap,” said Gower in his autobiography. The sports writers, alas, had to send back a couple of stories of the most remarkable crap too. After that embarrassing defeat to the Windward Islands, England got another touch of the nervous 94s in their next game. They played superbly for three and a half days against the Leeward Islands, then made a desperate mess of chasing 116 to win. They finished on 94 for eight with Sir Richie Richardson, the great West Indies No3 batsman, taking five for 40. He had never taken a first-class wicket in his life.

And so to Jamaica, where England faced three games in a fortnight. The first, a tour match, was won impressively by 158 runs, though Gower’s poor form continued after a comprehensive working-over from Courtney Walsh, during which he was hit on the hand, helmet and forearm. Walsh couldn’t even get in the West Indies squad for the first Test. Patterson, picked ahead of him, was omitted from the tour match so that England would not get a look at him.

They didn’t get much sight of him when he did play. The low sightscreen in front of the George Headley Stand made it difficult to see the ball properly when it was released by anybody over six foot. After problems in the tour match, England requested that it be raised for the upcoming ODI and Test. They were told this would not be possible, as it would impair the view of a few hundred spectators who had already bought tickets. “It was a comforting thought, humming ‘Hail Marys’ to yourself as Patterson’s arm whirled over from a point comfortably off the radar, that someone had a good view,” said Gower later.

Patterson was selected for the first ODI a few days later. He had been in deadly form during the Shell Shield season, splattering Guyana for 41 on the opening day of the season with figures of seven for 24. In the next game he and Walsh routed the Leeward Islands – whose team included Richardson and Richards – for 77. Patterson also left the Leewards’ opener Luther Kelly a little dentally challenged when a bouncer took out two front teeth. England struggled to reconcile the scare stories with the Patterson they knew. Most of them had played against him the previous summer when he was at Lancashire. He was sharp and raw, but so were tens of other West Indian fast bowlers waiting for a chance in international cricket.

Patterson had an upset stomach on his ODI debut, yet bowled with good pace to dismiss Tim Robinson and Gower for four-ball ducks. Marshall, the world’s best bowler, came on second-change; it felt like a sick joke to demonstrate the depth of the West Indies’ fast-bowling resources. Gatting, who had been England’s best batsman in the warm-up games, tried to hook a ball that skidded off the grassy pitch and squashed his nose. Like most of the England batsmen, he preferred a lighter, clearer helmet with no protective visor or bars.

Gatting’s hideous injury produced some famous photographs. “He looked like a panda,” says Smith, who would make his Test debut a few days later because of Gatting’s injury. “There are times when you can’t think of anything to say. I remember walking into the physio’s room, where he was sitting on the bench, and I said, ‘Are you all right Gatt?’ It was pretty obvious, with two black eyes and a hole in his nose, that he wasn’t all right!”

When Marshall prepared to bowl the next delivery, he found a piece of Gatting’s nose in the ball and threw it down in disgust. After a few days of waiting for the swelling to subside, during which he suffered severe breathing difficulties, Gatting returned to England for surgery. (His replacement was the Middlesex opener Wilf Slack. England had gone to the Caribbean with no back-up opener, which was like going to Mars without a spare oxygen tank. There was even talk that Geoffrey Boycott, at the age of 45, would take Gatting’s place.) When Gatting arrived at Heathrow, he was asked by a journalist where exactly the ball had hit him.

“The optimism of summer has evaporated,” wrote Engel on the eve of the first Test, “to be replaced by awe at the West Indians’ continuing fast bowling strength and apprehension about the way they will use it.” England, decent outsiders when they flew out a month earlier, were now 16/1 to win the first Test.

England’s preparation was so thorough that even Botham, who was allergic to nets, had two long sessions with a futuristic new bowling machine called Fred. (“It looked,” wrote Engel, “like a cartoon Martian.”) The match was not televised, with the BBC loath to pay a reported £300,000 to cover the tour. They and ITN objected so strongly to being asked to pay £500 a day for highlights during their news bulletins that they issued a joint statement criticising the practice of charging for news feeds.

A deal was agreed for the remainder of the tour, with the BBC showing highlights on Sportsnight and Grandstand. This film gives a flavour of what England’s batsmen had to face, though none of it is from Sabina Park. The BBC chose to broadcast only the morning session of each day’s play on Radio 3, deciding that their primetime audience would prefer classical music to chin music. “Presumably,” said one letter to the Guardian, “the eager sporting listener can look forward to such future treats as the opening half hour of the World Cup final, lap one of the Olympic 1,500m final and the first five rounds of Barry McGuigan’s next title defence.”

Father’s corrections

England made a perfect start to the series. It lasted 55 minutes. Gooch and Robinson, who had made a spectacular start to his Test career, batted with calm authority against Marshall and Joel Garner. It was quiet, too damn quiet. Then Patterson replaced Marshall at the Dodgy Sightscreen End, and there was instant mayhem. Robinson was caught at slip, fending off a homing missile that cut sharply off the pitch towards his face, and Gower was given the hurry up by Patterson to such an extent that he slashed his second and third deliveries for four and six over third man. He soon went to Michael Holding for an eccentric 10-ball 16.

The England dressing-room fast realised that this was not the Patterson they knew from Lancashire. “He was a shock,” said Botham in his autobiography, Don’t Tell Kath. “He was murderously quick and so raw, so full of hatred, like Colin Croft and Sylvester Clarke used to be. I expect he’s a lovely bloke off the field.” Gower confirmed as much. “He was, as with so many of those West Indian quicks, a very nice guy,” he wrote in An Endangered Species. “He called me ‘D’.”

Patterson’s ungainly style made him even more intimidating. He was all muscle and bustle, with none of Holding’s elegance and little of Marshall’s craft. He could, however, bowl faster than the lot of them. “He had a powerful action rather than an easy, lithe one,” says Thomas. “He was a bit wild but, bloody hell, he did bowl quickly.” As a batsman and umpire, Willey has seen all the great fast bowlers of the last 40 years. None left an impression quite like Patterson. “If people are bowling 90 miles an hour now,” he says, “Patterson must have been bowling 100mph in that game.” Anyone familiar with Willey will know this is certainly not inmydayism.

Patterson was gap-toothed and bow-legged, with a cruiserweight’s frame and a few distinctive features: enormous thighs on top of matchstick legs, and shot-putter’s shoulders that gave him devastating power and speed. “Patrick,” wrote the author Frances Edmonds, wife of the England spinner Phil, “has muscles in places where other man simply do not have places.”

His bowling action was a statement of the most malevolent intent. He thrust his left foot towards the batsman, spikes showing, his leg so high as to provide a rigorous test of the fabric in his trousers. Then the foot would slam down – “hard enough to measure on the Richter scale” in Mike Selvey’s words – and his body would propel forward to batter the ball into the pitch. Cricinfo’s Andrew Miller memorably described it as “a stiff-limbed, stud-slamming action like a windmill being ripped off its axis in a hurricane”.

Patterson got the ball to lift viciously off a hard, ridged pitch that started uneven and got worse. It looked like an ironic haircut: bald for the most part, with rogue tufts here and there and a big green patch in the middle - also known, in this match, as a good length. “It’s one of the worst wickets I’ve played on against bowlers of that calibre,” says Willey, whose rumbustious second-innings 71 was the highest score of the match. “It was German 88 millimetres against air pistols. We were just blasted out of it. We didn’t mind the bouncers; that’s the way cricket was. They could bowl you four or five bouncers an over and it wasn’t a bother, you learned how to play them. The trouble was the uneven bounce. If somebody’s bowls two balls in the same spot at that pace, and one goes past your neck and one goes past your ankles, you’re knackered.”

  • A batsman’s view of Patrick Patterson, taken from the second Test in Trinidad. Photograph: Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

It made for arguably the scariest match England have ever played. The Bodyline series of 1932-33 was played on truer pitches, and although the abandoned Test of 1997-98 was played on another diabolical surface at Sabina Park, at least it didn’t go the distance. And Richardson, who was at both games, reckoned the 1986 pitch was worse. There was no chance of it being abandoned. “No, that was never discussed,” says Thomas. “You just played and that was it. It was the kind of thing you accepted, even if you were a tailender. It was a tough job.” These were different times for masculinity, when most batsmen would rather lose their features than lose face.

In 1986 there was no limit on the number of bouncers that could be bowled. It was left to the umpires to judge whether, in accordance with Law 42, the bowling was deliberately intimidatory. The batsmen got some protection from one umpire, David Archer. But Johnny Gayle, who was at Patterson’s end, saw nothing wrong.

England adopted a sod-this-for-a-lark approach to batting. Even though they were skittled twice, they scored their runs at 3.52 runs per over, their fastest against West Indies since 1939. The old bad-wicket mantra – get as many as you can before the pitch gets you – had a darker implication. “For the first and, I think, only time, I began saying to myself: Graham, it might be doing yourself a favour if you got out,” wrote Gooch in his autobiography. “This boy Patterson is really firing and it could get very nasty indeed. If you don’t watch it, you could be hit very badly.”

  • Graham Gooch avoids a bouncer during his superb first-innings 51. Photograph: Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

Allan Lamb’s mortality-awareness levels were also going through the roof. When he started to counter-attack successfully, Richards told Marshall to give him a “serious delivery”. Lamb enquired what that meant. Richards smiled. “It’s one that you eat, Lamby.” It wasn’t even lunchtime on the first day. Lamb spanked 49 from 67 balls before being bowled by an unplayable grubber from Garner. “I’ve usually managed to find a bit of fun in cricket, whatever the state of the game, but not that morning in Kingston,” he said in his autobiography. “I’m not saying I was keen to get out … but I fancied a change of scenery because it struck me that life can, on occasions, be more important than a cricket match.”

England were bowled out for 159 in 45.3 overs, with Patterson taking four for 30. Gooch top-scored with 51 before being caught off the splice from an unplayable Marshall lifter. It’s impossible to overstate how good Marshall was, and in 1986 he was in the middle of a five-year spell when he took 235 Test wickets at an average of 18.47.

Thomas, batting at No11 even though he had a first-class century, was needed by mid-afternoon. “During the innings I was talking to Bob Willis, who was the tour manager,” he says. “I’d been on a British Colleges trip to West Indies a couple of years earlier and, as there wasn’t that much media attention on the game, I said to him, ‘To be honest Bob, this doesn’t feel like a bloody Test match. It feels like being on tour with the lads.’



“The game went on and I went into bat. There was only one man in front of the wicket, at short square-leg. I looked round, and Jeff Dujon and the slips were miles back. Then Garner ran into bowl. I don’t remember seeing the ball, I heard a clatter – this was my first ball – and the leg stump almost reached Dujon. I walked back to the changing room and was taking my pads off when Bob tapped me on the shoulder. He said, ‘Does it feel like a Test match now?!’”

The longer the tour went on, the more England would need gallows humour.

  • Joel Garner bowls a bouncer to Phil Edmonds, while the slip cordon looks on from a different postcode. Photograph: Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

Marshall, Holding and Garner were three all-time greats, yet it was Patterson who stood out. “If anyone has ever bowled quicker than that, well...” said Gooch. “He was rapid, and I mean really rapid.” That view is supported by Dujon, the wicketkeeper who was chief witness to the West Indies’ reign of terror. He kept to all the greats from 1981 to 1991, and did so with such feline excellence that 95mph deliveries became much of a muchness. Every time he is interviewed, he patiently answers the inevitable question. Who was the fastest? Dujon cites two spells, both by Patterson: Sabina Park 1986 and the last day of the Test in 1988, when Australa unwisely provoked him and he threatened to kill them all the next day. He settled for the compromise of a matchwinning five-for. In the first over of that spell, Dujon took a short delivery and heard a scrunch. A split-second later, the pain of a broken finger reached his brain.

The strange thing about Sabina Park is that the only person who retired hurt was a West Indian batsman. Late on the first day, Gordon Greenidge hooked Botham into his own face and needed three stitches. West Indies finished the day on 85 for nought, though that particular score flattered them. Thomas could have dismissed Desmond Haynes with his first two balls in Test cricket. The first flew off the edge between first and second slip; the second was put down by Willey in the gully. He completed a spectacular over by ripping one straight past Haynes’s face.

In Thomas’s next over, Greenidge gave him what Garner called “a father’s correction”, bashing three fours. Thomas’s performance in the match led Christopher Martin-Jenkins to write in the Cricketer that “he is the real thing at last”, and though his series figures of eight wickets at 46 were modest, the sheer heat and quality of his bowling had most predicting that England’s hunt for a truly fast bowler was over – including the greatest of them all. “I could see that here was an outstanding young talent,” said Marshall in his autobiography, Marshall Arts. “He earned the respect of all our batsmen.” This being the 1980s, he played only one more Test in his career. Thomas only realised he had earned the opposition’s respect when, as the series progressed, they started to administer a few more “father’s corrections”. Being targeted by the West Indies batsmen was a strange kind of compliment.

  • The Glamorgan fast bowler Greg Thomas in action during the second Test in Trinidad. Photograph: Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

Thomas and particularly Botham hit the green bit of the pitch with similar frequency to the West Indies bowlers. “There were overs in which Botham bowled six attempted bouncers,” wrote Woodcock in the Times. “All that did was stir up further trouble for England’s batsmen, especially with umpires who pay not the slightest attention to the law as it relates to short-pitched bowling.”

One man’s bouncer is another man’s shortish delivery. “I don’t remember anyone bowling many bouncers,” says Thomas. “It was more back-of-a-length stuff on both sides. You didn’t need to bowl bouncers on that wicket, it was flying.” One short ball from Botham was hooked for six by the debutant Carlisle Best, his first scoring stroke in Test cricket. Best famously commentated on his own innings – “You can’t bowl there to Carlisle Best” – and doubtless had plenty to say as he launched Beefy into the crowd. Amid the virility, Richard Ellison’s crafty swing bowling yielded a third five-for in as many Tests. This being the 1980s, he played only three more Tests in his career. Ellison concentrated on a different part of the body; four of his wickets were LBW, part of a then-record-equalling six in the innings. West Indies were dismissed for 307, a lead of 148.

There was also a row between Greenidge and Edmonds, who was standing intrusively close at short leg. It was an unusual occurrence in the series, despite the punishing nature of the cricket. Most were already friends from county cricket. “We all got on exceptionally well; it was excellent that way,” says Thomas. “There was no animosity, nothing whatsoever.” Both teams knew that it was nothing personal, just business. And that West Indies had an unchallengeable monopoly.

‘I felt as if my chest had caved in’

On the third morning, before play, Robinson practised with the bowling machine, Fred, on a concrete wicket. Fred could do almost anything. He could give you a 94mph bouncer or a 66mph inswinger. What he couldn’t replicate was a length delivery from the 6ft 8ins Garner that would shoot along the floor. Robinson was bowled for a duck, and Gooch followed for nought in the next over from Marshall. Robinson went to the West Indies averaging 62 per innings, thinking Test cricket was a “piece of piss”. He barely made that many in the series: 72 runs, an average of nine, and his Test career never truly recovered.

  • Tim Robinson, who averaged 62 going into the tour, had a desperate time. Here his is bowled by Patrick Patterson in the third Test in Barbados. Photograph: Adrian Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images

Soon it was time for Patterson’s second crack at England, a six-over spell of unprecedented menace. There are no greater compliments from no greater authorities than those he received for his speed in the second innings. In the Times, Woodcock deemed it on a par with Frank Tyson in the 1954-55, “one or two of his short ones being just about as fast as man can bowl”, while Wisden said his pace was “comparable to that of Jeff Thomson of Australia in his prime”.

One delivery cleared everyone and bounced just inside the boundary. Gower was caught at third man, placed there deliberately as a catcher two balls earlier. It was his seventh failure out of seven on the tour: his scores were 5, 9, 2, 11, 0, 16, 9. Lamb then received what Engel described as “the most extraordinary cannonade of bouncers”. His innings had more incident that most seven-hour centuries. He was at the crease for 15 balls. Lamb was hit on the helmet and the body, slapped three boundaries and was caught top-edging a hook.

He was one of three men out hooking in the innings. Botham, who had fallen that way in the first innings, landed a few haymakers in a 28-ball 29 that included two hooked sixes: one top-edged off Patterson, one off the meat from the first ball of Marshall’s spell. Marshall went straight around the wicket and bowled four more consecutive bouncers, two of which Botham walloped for four to make it 14 from the over. Marshall was stirred first by the unspoken speed contest with Patterson and then by Botham’s chutzpah. In Marshall’s next over Botham was bowled… while hooking, another victim of the uneven bounce. It was the start of another difficult tour, particularly with the bat; he averaged 16.8 with a top score of 38.

The West Indies were the one team Botham could never conquer. Willey was almost the opposite, a West Indies specialist who played 15 of his 26 Tests against them, facing the bowlers head on with his extraordinary open stance. When he went out to bat in the second innings in Jamaica, having been pushed up from No7 to No4, Willey was not exactly high on life. “I had a bit of a humour on,” he says. “It was horrible. One ball was going past your throat, one was going past your ankles. So I decided to have a swing at anything that was in the slot.” He crashed 71 from 104 balls, including nine fours and a six off Patterson. When he reached his half-century, the press box tossed impartiality out the window and stood to applaud.

Willey does not recall the low sightscreen or Patterson’s studs-up action. “I didn’t see the foot and I didn’t care what was going on behind him,” he says. “You’re just looking for that thing coming down at you.” He was in a higher state of concentration. “Sometimes, it’s not you batting. You’re in the zone. You don’t think about what you’re going to do; it just happens. There’s no time to think.

“You never thought about getting hit. It never entered your head, not even on a day like that. I put the grill on in the first innings and I got out for nought; I couldn’t see the ball. The second innings I put the side flaps on and just watched the ball. It’s like a boxer; you watch the fist. If you watch the ball, 99.9% of the time you’ll find a way to get your head out of the way. Doesn’t matter if it hits you anywhere else.”

When he was dismissed, Willey walked back to the dressing-room and was greeted by Thomas.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, fine, why?”

“You look about 150!”

Thomas remembers it well. “He looked like death. Honestly, he was gaunt and pale. And he’s a bloody tough character.”

  • Peter Willey faces the West Indian bowlers head on. Photograph: Patrick Eagar via Getty Images

The same was true of Smith. He was picked because of his ability against fast bowling, but his debut was not a good one. He made one in the first innings and nought in the second, when he batted at No7 because of sunstroke and was caught on the boundary hooking Marshall. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody so angry in the changing-rooms,” laughs Thomas. “He was absolutely fuming because Marshall bounced him out, and he threw his helmet on the floor. I never thought a helmet could break into so many pieces! Nobody went anywhere near him for quite some time. Honestly, he was in a foul mood! It was quite frightening.”

When he was recalled for the fourth Test in Trinidad, Smith top-scored in both innings with 47 and 32. This being the 80s... well, you know the rest. He missed the last match through injury and didn’t play another Test. “It gives me a lot of pride to have top-scored in both innings,” he says. “Talking about it makes me go cold because it’s the most exciting thing you can ever do on a cricket field. The thrill was in the challenge, knowing that it was the pinnacle – that you couldn’t go any higher.” Not just in 1986, but ever. Test batting will certainly never be as tough again.

“I was never scared; that never came into it. You know you’ll get hit, but you wipe that out of your head. To me it was a battle. It was like walking around in certain parts of London. I won’t start anything, but if somebody wants to have a row …”

Smith had been picked at the age of 30 after a barnstorming performance against an otherwise rampant Marshall in the County Championship the previous summer. In Trinidad he took on the West Indies to such an extent that his partner Lamb kept trying to shut him up for fear of reprisals. “Patterson hit me and he was standing next to me,” says Smith. “I told him to eff off. Leave me alone! They’re trying to kill you anyway, so whatever. You can’t wind them up anymore! I’m not a thug but I would take people on. Viv was having a few words with me so I pointed my bat at him and said, ‘If you want it as well, you can have it!’ I wouldn’t back down. It was just part of the battle. I had a huge amount of respect for the West Indian players. It was awesome to play against them.”

  • The Jamaican crowd lapped up the success of the local boy Patrick Patterson. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

With the match approaching its conclusion, Edmonds was hit over the heart by an accidental beamer from Patterson. “I felt,” he said, “as if my chest had caved in.” And that was with the kind of chest protector used by jockeys to protect them from a horse’s kick. As he staggered around like a confused zombie, Edmonds dislodged the bails, and should technically have been given out. Both umpires left the decision to the other, and he was given another life.

In Another Bloody Tour, her famous book of the tour, Edmonds’ wife Frances wrote: “There is a protective bodice, a lot of very thick skin, quite a bit of excess adipose tissue and a wodge of cheque books to penetrate before anyone gets anywhere near Phil Edmonds’ heart.”

The next ball was short, straight into the hip. “The longer the match went on, the less like a civilised game of cricket it became,” wrote Woodcock. “Except on that evening of ill fame at Old Trafford in 1976, when Close and John Edrich were subjected to such a disgraceful barrage by the West Indian fast bowlers, I think I have never felt it more likely that we should see someone killed.”

Edmonds was soon the last man to fall, to give Patterson his seventh wicket of the match. “I wouldn’t say it was shit batting, we just got bowled out,” says Willey. “When you talk to some modern cricketers about the West Indies they say, ‘Ah, they weren’t that quick.’ I’d like to see them face Patterson on those wickets.”

West Indies needed five runs to complete a 10-wicket victory. England lasted 88.2 overs in the match – not eye-catching these days, but almost without precedent in 1986. It was 79 years since they had been bowled out so quickly in both innings of a Test. “Perhaps no team in history would have coped any better,” wrote Engel. “I can’t recall a Test when it was so impossible to foresee any result other than a win for one side.”

There are photos of Edmonds on a beach a few days later, with a grotesque crater just below his left nipple. The mental bruising took even longer to subside. In most mismatches there is a quick finish, a knockout blow or a couple of hours of misery. England had to stand there and take it for the best part of three months. They were getting it from their own, too, with increasingly vituperative criticism of everything from the decision to make some net sessions optional to the inability to repel the greatest bowling attack in history. “It has been very easy to abuse England on this trip,” wrote Engel. “One or two people in the press box have sounded a bit like Lord Haig, demanding from the comfort of HQ that soldiers hurl themselves against the enemy guns.”

After Jamaica, England looked like a team with a touch of PTSD. “The team talks got shorter and shorter,” laughs Thomas. “There was nothing much to talk about.” A 5-0 defeat was inevitable, and confirmed at Antigua after Richards blasted an astonishing 56-ball century. “After the first Test, the bouncers were never overdone,” said Engel. “There was no need – the batsmen had seen enough.” It was still the toughest assignment in cricket history, especially as at least three of the pitches were dodgy, and England exceeded 200 only twice in 10 innings. There was only one hundred on the entire tour, Gooch’s epic to win the second ODI. In the fourth Test at spin-friendly Trinidad, the West Indies included the off-spinner Roger Harper. He didn’t bowl a single ball.

This was the end of the West Indies’ most dominant period, one last series when they postponed the slow, decade-long transition that began when the core of their greatest team started to go over the hill. They drew their next four series, three of them away from home, and although they stuffed England 4-0 in 1988, they had gone from the greatest to merely great. The 1985-86 series was the conclusion of a four-year spell in which they won seven series in a row and had a record of 23 wins and one defeat. And the defeat was in a dead rubber.

Life goes on

On the first morning of the second Test in Trinidad, Patterson’s first six overs went for 54 as Gower and Lamb launched a breathless counterattack. ( Scorecard aficionados will love England’s first innings.) There were 10 no-balls in that, a recurring problem in his career and an indication of how he could struggle if his rhythm was not right. He did not have a classical action to fall back on. The locals said he was never the same away from Sabina Park, too, and eventually he ended his career with 93 wickets at 30.90 from 28 Tests. He did produce some more chilling spells, particularly overseas. There was that day in Melbourne, and in 1987-88 he took five-fors in consecutive Tests in India. The dashing opener Kris Srikkanth recalled one evening in Kolkata. “I knew if I got hit by any of his deliveries, I could die on the spot,” he said in 2009. “He walked down the pitch and gave me cold stares and I felt the chill running down the spine. I survived only because of my reflexes.”

Patterson’s international career ended at the age of 31 when he was sent home from a tour of Australia for disciplinary reasons. He became a paranoid recluse, prompting wild speculation about what had happened to him. Some said he was a destitute drug addict; others that he was in an asylum. He was found last month by the Indian journalist Bharat Sundaresan, the culmination of a six-year search. The result was one of the more poignant features of the year.

No complaints

In England, there was a significant moral panic over the nature of the West Indies’ domination. “The West Indies and the other members of the ICC ought to be asking themselves if this is really what they want cricket to be,” wrote Engel. Suggestions ranged from a longer pitch, a no-ball line halfway down the pitch and a ball made of rubber. The Wisden Cricket Monthly editor David Frith, lamenting “a curse both on the spirit of the game and as a spectacle”, suggested an amendment to Law 42, which eventually happened in 1991. For richer and poorer, cricket was never the same again.

The only people not complaining about the West Indies’ tactics were the England players. They were aggrieved about uneven bounce, not bouncers. “You can easily become a bit shell-shocked, and there were some quiet times in the dressing-room, but I don’t remember anybody complaining,” says Smith. “Would I want to play with any other people? No, not at all. There were some tough cookies in that team, and I was proud to be a part of it.”

England’s top scorer in the series, by some distance, was Gower, who recovered from his desperate start to hit scores of 66, 47, 66, 23, 10, 22, 90 and 21 in the last four Tests. There is more than one way to show character. In context, Gower’s 370 runs were as worthy as his 715 against Australia the previous summer. “Because he was such a languidly classical batsman, it is often ignored that David was full of guts and immense courage when the fast bowling was at its most dangerous,” said Gooch. “It was an understated courage, and would laugh it off later in the evening with a typical quip; but I knew, from the other end, how many times I was witness to his fearlessness and genuine bottle.”

You can’t dress up a 5-0 battering but you can look at it with fresh eyes. In a world that has become almost too health-and-safety conscious to function, the level of courage and skill frequently shown by the England batsmen 31 years ago is almost beyond comprehension. It temains a grisly old tale, but at least they all lived to tell it.

Greg Thomas now runs Legato Legal Services. David Smith is the manager of Lashings All Stars, whose next match is at Roe Green Cricket Club in Manchester on 17 August

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