Calypso collapso the sign of fraught times ahead for Test game

The steady decline of second-class tourists is a worrying indicator of a much wider malaise. By Stephen Brenkley
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England's selectors fretted yesterday about the usual stuff. They will probably not have paid any heed to the rapidly emerging real significance of this series against West Indies as the teams head for Old Trafford for the Third Test starting on Thursday.

It is about more than the balance of the side with Andrew Flintoff missing - and the best of luck to him, by the way, since his joie de vivre is missed as much as his talent. It is about more than whether four bowlers can do the job instead of five - against this opposition, of course they can, against Australia they could not.

It is about more than which batsman eventually to drop, about more than the two pieces of clever-clogs selectorial judgement that prompted the inclusion of Matthew Prior and Ryan Sidebottom. It is about the state and the future of Test cricket.

West Indies are in a dreadful mess. Their standard in all departments in the Second Test at Leeds was barely acceptable, and their record defeat by an innings and 283 runs fully reflected the cataclysmic nature of their display.

The decline of West Indies is hardly new. They have not won or drawn a Test series away against any country other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe for 10 years. Before that they had not lost one for 15. But there is something particularly disturbing about this set of tourists. They are probably the weakest West Indies side to visit England since the first in 1928 (and they had Learie Constantine). It is not simply that there is no end to the decline, it is that it is becoming worse. It is grim for Test cricket. The game has never been more popular worldwide, yet the best, most important form, without which the others would wither, is in trouble.

West Indies embody that, but there is no reason to suppose that it is healthy elsewhere. India, the sport's powerhouse, arrive as the second tourists later this month. They will play three Tests and seven one-day internationals. It is easy to see where Indian loyalties lie and ultimately - if it has not done so already - it will affect their Test cricket. To fit in the septet, the Test programme will be finished by 13 August, which is bewildering.

The England and Wales Cricket Board need to get a firm grip of their scheduling. They may claim that it is already decided until 2011, but the number of matches is in their domain and nothing to do with the ICC Future Tours Programme. The Schofield Report, which the ECB at last deigned to release in full yesterday, says: "It is essential that the ECB act now and are pro-active as to what is the best itinerary for the England team." Sounds like a polite call to get off their bottoms.

England is the only country where Test cricket still has a mass following. Even Old Trafford is full these days since the deeds of 2005. But for how long will people come for second-class fare, which is patently what was on offer at Headingley? West Indies, one of the great cricket places, need help. That is one of the points that the players' organisation, the Federation of International Cricket Associations, are making to the International Cricket Council. But other countries, perhaps South Africa, may soon face similar crises.

Worrying though this is, England can only play what is put in front of them. It can be difficult to judge in such circumstances but they seemed to play pretty well in Leeds. Sidebottom's bowling was a minor model of what a left-arm swing bowler ought to do, as well as being instructive for learning your trade in county cricket.

Since playing his only previous Test in 2001, Sidebottom had bowled slightly more than 2,000 first-class overs in Championship cricket. In the old days that would have taken only three years, but the point is he was fit to make his comeback at the age of 29.

It is clear Liam Plunkett needs more overs under his belt, and he needs a different arena than Test cricket to bowl them in. Much has been made of Stephen Harmison's return to form after the rapid manner in which he finished at Leeds, but one spell does not a summer make or a career revive. There is work to do.

The England batting looks in good order and whatever the standard of the opposition, the innings of Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen at Headingley were wonderful for different reasons. Vaughan should lead the side to their 21st win under his stewardship, a record for an England captain. Unless anybody should be tempted to think that all is gloom, these are matters to celebrate.

Sidebottom's journey from county to country