Sport - Jason Cowley demands shorter test matches

Whatever became of the bumping pitch and the blinding light?

I suppose there was a certain grim fascination to be had from watching England's forlorn struggle to save the Headingley Test against India. But am I alone in finding high-scoring matches played on benign pitches of the kind that have become routine this summer a terrific bore? The past five years or so, certainly since Steve Waugh became captain of Australia and introduced a new form of unrelenting attack to the game, have been a golden period for Test cricket. On the pitch, at least.

The modern Australian team - athletic, aggressive, fearless - would rather lose a game in pursuit of victory, no matter how improbable, than allow a match to drift lugubriously towards a draw, an example now followed by their rivals. Test cricket has thus become a faster, more demanding game: teams seek to score quickly, in excess of four runs an over, to give themselves the opportunity to bowl their opponents out twice, and the fielding has a new, thrilling intensity. Matches are regularly being completed within three or four days, rather than the scheduled five, as happened consistently in England during the summers of 2000 and 2001.

But premature finishes have led many in the game to call for the advent of four-day Test matches - something to which the England and Wales Cricket Board is resolutely opposed. This summer, its response to such notions has been to prepare pitches less suited for five- than for eight-day cricket! Gone are the seaming tracks and hectic clatter of wickets of recent summers; gone are the abrupt finishes and the resulting painful payout to spectators with preordered tickets. Instead, we have seen England, and their opponents, regularly score over 500 runs per innings. Matches often last into the final session of the final day. No wonder Darren Gough hasn't bothered to turn out for a Test match; bowling on flat, lifeless tracks is crushing work. It is also crushingly tedious for spectators.

It's often said that cricket is a dying game, ill-suited to the pace and excitable excesses of our modern consumer society. Yet the one-day game, arguably, has never been more popular, particularly in the subcontinent, where games are often played before audiences of 100,000. It is Test cricket that is in a near-terminal condition, despite the brilliance of the modern player. To watch England on tour these past winters is to realise how few people watch Test matches in Pakistan, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and even in India. In these countries, the long narrative of the five-day game has little appeal.

The three-match series played earlier this year in New Zealand was especially surreal - because there was often no one in the ground beyond a smattering of English holidaymakers and the usual entourage of retired-cricketers-turned-media-pundits. (What a curious life the likes of Ian Botham, Bob Willis and David Gower must have led: here are men who spent nearly every winter of their playing days travelling together throughout the Commonwealth and who now, in retirement, are still travelling together, this time as broadcasters to the same countries where they once played. They must know each other more completely than their own wives and children.)

If Test cricket is not to become anything more than a virtual event staged for television - such as in New Zealand, or the recent one-day series between South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka played in the dry heat of Morocco - then the administrators of the game must do all they can to encourage result-oriented cricket.

Four-day Test matches would certainly contribute to enhanced urgency, as would the preparation of attacking pitches of the kind we are unlikely to find at the Oval next week for the final Test of this frustrating summer.

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