England's brave face for a new world

These are changing times in Test cricket, and not only because England are fairly good at it again. This, their first series in Sri Lanka, will be their last under the old,
ad hoc regime. In future,
ad hoc will be part of the game only if it happens to be the name of an Indian spinner.

These are changing times in Test cricket, and not only because England are fairly good at it again. This, their first series in Sri Lanka, will be their last under the old, ad hoc regime. In future, ad hoc will be part of the game only if it happens to be the name of an Indian spinner.

The programme shortly to be in place will involve all 10 Test nations playing each other home and away in a five-year period. The schedule, including, heaven forfend, the length of Ashes series, could change forever. England, at least, should enter this brave new world and the rolling world championship with a big heart and a broad mind, a revolutionary advance considering both were the size of peas not long ago.

True, they still have abundant reason to fear Muttiah Muralitharan, who was often unlucky yesterday but who still befuddled his opponents. But batsmen are surely entitled to be a little worried and confused by the world's most insistent, troublesome spin bowler. Being beaten by him would not be a humiliation, failing to learn along the way would be unforgiveable.

They can learn from each other, too; they can learn, for a start, from Marcus Trescothick. His maiden Test century in this captivating ground was not a masterpiece of versatile strokeplay but it was a model of unflappability and selfdenial. It was, if you like, a model of Nasser Hussain's England. Simple, get on with the game, get out of the game what you put into it stuff.

Over the first two days of the First Test in Galle, England had already developed a little further as a team. Sri Lanka had won an important toss and from early on made it clear that they would not give their wickets away easily and would build a substantial total. England, however, never let them break free entirely.

Barely a year ago, and for some seasons before that, it is possible to imagine the opposition being allowed to disappear over some far horizon. But this England bowling attack has an attritional quality, demonstrated by the frugal figures of Andrew Caddick, who all but eschewed the old-fashioned theory that bowlers should take wickets occasionally, and the willingness of the two Yorkshiremen, Darren Gough and Craig White, to bowl off-cutters well below their normal pace.

If Ashley Giles and Robert Croft were not menacing this was not unexpected. Giles, after the success of his left-arm variation in Pakistan, was due a bad day or two. Here, round or over the wicket, he could not get his line right for long enough. Croft was never plundered by rampaging hordes but he had his pocket delicately picked time and again, maybe not at will but just when he wasn't looking. The chief picker was Marvan Atapattu, who scored his fourth Test double century with great stealth - and this after a total of 41 runs in six innings on Sri Lanka's South African tour. It remains difficult to envisage Croft bowling out the bulk of the opposition on any surface. This is not necessarily Croft's fault. He is the son of his native system.

But England, in the parlance, kept at it. These are unfamiliar conditions, where perspiration is a second skin, and the fact that the ground has the Indian Ocean lapping it on two sides and has palm trees on one side does nothing to cool the atmosphere. The fielding was not always precise but it was rarely less than persevering.

The Sri Lankans might have pushed it along a bit more quickly if their intention was to declare on the second day, but there were reasons for their circumspection. One was doubtless their acute awareness that they had batted recklessly and abysmally in South Africa; the other was that England kept to their word to stay with them in the match.

The tourists were tired, and justifiably so. But this is likely to be a permanent state in the international future. Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has been in town, and the vision he outlined did not allow much time for thumb twiddling, except on the dressing-room balcony.

Summers of seven Test matches and winters of up to eight more, with one-day series to be fitted in and around, leave no time to stand and stare. One of the casualties of this might be five-match Ashes series, the one enduring bulwark of a game which has been forced to adapt.

"We've even been talking to the Australians about maybe playing fewer than five matches when we next go there in 2002-03, which is a very hectic year with the ICC knockout, then the tour of Australia, then the World Cup," said Lamb.

It would only be a one-off occasion (England played a four-Test series for the Ashes in 1975 after the World Cup) but in the present climate it might also open the door to permanent reduction. "What we've got to ensure is that, although we might be undertaking more tours, the length of those tours, the breaks between those tours and the number of matches played is kept within reasonable bounds," said Lamb.

"It won't necessarily apply in the future that we play the same number of Test matches against different countries that we've been used to playing in the past. We've already been in discussions with West Indies about reducing the number of matches, and I flagged up with Ali Bacher that I didn't think it was right or feasible for England always to play South Africa in five-Test series." He also recognised the possibility of international players choosing either to concentrate on Tests or one-dayers. Certainly it will be harder to do both from now on. Certainly, also, international players will play almost no other cricket.

"We must respect the feelings of the counties but at the end of the day England come first," said Lamb. "We must not ride roughshod, we've got to get the balance right, but we have to recognise we need a more flexible policy. Within a very few years I hope we have a larger pool of players rather than the relatively small nucleus we have now."

In Somerset they can expect to wait a very long time indeed to see Marcus Trescothick again. They are old and deep friends, but after yesterday and with what is to come, they can expect no more than a nodding acquaintance.

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