Cricket: From Greek tragedy to English recovery

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INTERNATIONAL CRICKET is hard to predict and usually I'm as bad at it as the next mug. But I did have a bet on New Zealand to win the Lord's Test, and at the same time, because the odds (11-1) were ridiculously generous, I backed them to win the series too. I didn't really think they would win it, and I still don't. In fact, at the risk of looking even more of a fool than is strictly necessary in this job, I think the series will be won, weather permitting, by England.

Test cricket is as tidal as the bucket-and-spade holidays that the rest of us go on while the cricketers are at work. New Zealand turned the tide superbly at Lord's, but now there are signs that it has turned again. England's batting in the second innings at Old Trafford was comfortable, verging on commanding. Their score of 181 for 2 was in line with the romp to victory at Edgbaston (211 for 3) rather than the routs of the rest of the series (126, 186, 229 and 199 all out). Alec Stewart was back to his best, Mark Ramprakash was close to it, and Mike Atherton did exactly what he had been recalled to do. It is dismally typical of the way English cricket is run that Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting should have been sacked for a selection in which they got most things right.

England's biggest problem in the past month has been a lack of leadership. Already without a coach, they lost a captain and went into a spin. The impotence that Nasser Hussain felt, sitting on the balcony like a selector, will have communicated itself to the team. Now Hussain is back, devoid of match practice but, more importantly, re-energised and raring to go. He can come on stage like a god in Greek tragedy, descending in the nick of time to engineer an improbably happy ending.

Meanwhile New Zealand are no longer on a roll. Doubtless feeling robbed after Old Trafford, they have lost both their matches since - a one-dayer against Middlesex (in which Ramprakash not only had the decency to play but made 85) and a first-class game at Chelmsford. To lose to Essex these days takes some doing. To do so by an innings when Hussain, Stuart Law, Mark Ilott and Ashley Cowan are all resting is a feat which would impress a Bombay bookmaker.

Chris Cairns, the man of the series so far, picked up an injury, and so did Geoff Allott, his most likely replacement. Stephen Fleming has been playing Musical Bowlers all series - each time the music stops, he discards a front-line bowler in favour of a batsman or a bits-and-pieces player - and getting away with it, but the loss of these two would surely leave Dion Nash with too much work to do. For the first time in the series, New Zealand's injury list (Doull, Cairns, Allott) is as long as England's (Gough, Tudor, Headley).

England will need to perm an attacking XI from their XIII, risking either a pair of hittable bowlers in Graeme Swann and Ronnie Irani, or a tail- end hat-trick waiting to happen in Alan Mullally, Phil Tufnell and Ed Giddins, but it would be just like them to follow back-to-back debacles with a resounding victory. And of course that is what we England supporters desperately want, after a summer of discontent. Or is it?

The Test team is weak primarily because the county system is weak - England's Under-19s do well, but once the players clamber aboard the county treadmill, they fall far behind their overseas contemporaries. The county game is all about quantity, not quality, It has been better this season than last, because of the imminent split into two divisions, but only in the sense that four out of 10 is better than three. The pitches remain a scandal, which will come to an end only if the other counties have the wit to support the bold suggestion from Tony Pigott of Sussex that all 18 groundsmen be employed by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

In the forthcoming issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly, we argue that the domestic programme should be cut in half, with each side playing eight matches in the Championship and eight in the one-day league. That would bring them into line with their Australian counterparts, and it would also generate some of the sense of occasion which makes Tests, at the moment, such a daunting step up for a county pro. The BBC might even be persuaded to put the Championship on TV, as long as it paid a suitable amount for the rights - say, a couple of grand.

The chances of the counties slashing the programme are roughly the same as England's prospects of regaining the Ashes in 2001. And they certainly won't assent to anything radical if England win this weekend. The cracks will be papered over, the mid-summer slump will be forgotten and panic will once again give way to complacency. If England lose, on the other hand - preferably in four days, in time for Monday's meeting of the First- Class Forum - there is just a chance that the revolution will finally get under way.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and