Henry Blofeld: Grounds for pessimism as second-rate Test nations come calling

The second Test against Zimbabwe that starts on Thursday, the first to be played at the new and striking Riverside ground in Chester-le-Street, has underlined another problem that is facing contemporary administrators. Advanced bookings for this first Test match in the North East have been poor in spite of the original promises that the advance of Test cricket to within a measurable distance of Hadrian's Wall would be rapturously received.

The second Test against Zimbabwe that starts on Thursday, the first to be played at the new and striking Riverside ground in Chester-le-Street, has underlined another problem that is facing contemporary administrators. Advanced bookings for this first Test match in the North East have been poor in spite of the original promises that the advance of Test cricket to within a measurable distance of Hadrian's Wall would be rapturously received.

The lack of enthusiasm must, in part, be the result of the poor standard of Zimbabwe's cricket, which has not been helped by recent events at Lord's. It will not have profited either from the general view of the president of the Zimbabwe Cricket Association, Mr Robert Mugabe.

The locals would surely have felt that it was worth giving support to a venture of this sort, not least to keep the flag flying and to make sure that the North East would not miss out in the future. Mugabe's shadow has loomed large, however, and has perhaps made it seem that there is a hidden agenda. Potential spectators may have decided that they do not want to be a party to this, especially when the chances are that the game will be another walkover.

The England and Wales Cricket Board will soon have to cope with the first appearance of Bangladesh for a Test series in this country. Their first Test will surely be at Lord's where an invisible and unspoken three-line whip will, one hopes, ensure a crowd that is less than embarrassing. If it is a two-match series - one day presumably it will have to be - it may not be so easy to find a suitable home for the second. A two-tier Test system may eventually be one thing; two-tier Test grounds may not be so palatable.

If Hampshire are on course to host a Test match, this second game may be thrown to the Rose Bowl rather as a dog may get a bone. Like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh are not remotely qualified to make sure that a Test lasts five days in English conditions at the damp end of the summer. The citizens of Hampshire may respond like their counterparts in the North East.

Zimbabwe were admitted to Test cricket as much as anything to make sure that the game was preserved in a country where it has been seen as very much as the white man's property. Although the game was spread pretty thin, they had some decent players and for a while did at least as well, if not better, than was expected of them. The present troubles are severely hindering the development of the game.

Bangladesh were given full membership of the International Cricket Council, the necessary requirement for Test status, for different reasons. The subcontinent block of countries, aggressively led by Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the Indian Board, would like to see the headquarters of the ICC somewhere on the subcontinent, which, they feel, is the epicentre of the game, rather than in London.

Bangladesh's selection to full membership was surely manufactured to ensure that this block had another full vote at their disposal. The associate countries only have half a vote each. It was politics and not cricket, therefore that won the day. Although Dalmiya and his chums can rely on Bangladesh's vote, the main hindrance to his plans would seem to be Pakistan and India's refusal to break bread with each other. This may be a problem too insurmountable even for Dalmiya.

As it is, Bangladesh's promotion to Test cricket has cheapened the coinage. They were manifestly not ready for this quantum leap and are making runs and wickets cheaper than should be at the top level. They are also proving to be a financial embarrassment to a game that is short enough of money. As we saw in the recent World Cup, how much better it would have been (with hindsight) if Kenya had been admitted instead.

If Kenya are soon to be admitted to Test circles, and a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup is a solid enough argument, even if it was achieved as much as anything by default, Test cricket is going to have a lower end, which is as unhealthy from the cricketing angle as it is from the financial aspect.

Riverside and the Rose Bowl may well come to feel more patronised than honoured when granted a Test against Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe as they now are. It is a Catch-22 situation that the administrators have allowed to arise and which, for the time being at any rate, can only work to the detriment of the international game.

Malcolm Gray, the delightfully forthright Australian who is the outgoing president of the ICC, had to confront match-fixing as the main problem during his tenure of office. His successor Ehsan Mani, of Pakistan, another good choice, may find that the weaker Test-playing brethren are his main worry. I wonder too, how he will get on with his subcontinental neighbour, Jagmohan Dalmiya.

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