The new high-octane style of Test cricket, so vividly illustrated in Christchurch last week, may have to be slowed for the second Test against New Zealand which begins in Wellington tomorrow. The strong wind that normally blows here and the slow pitch that is normally served up are not conducive to five-an-over run sprees or tumbling wickets and old-fashioned virtues will probably prevail.
Nursing a 1-0 lead, the drop in tempo will suit England more than the home team, who must make the running if they are to get back into this series. But Nasser Hussain's men cannot afford to be complacent for they have seen such leads turned to deficits in recent home series, most notably against the Kiwis in 1999 when they ended up losing a four-match rubber 2-1.
The probable absence of Mark Butcher, still experiencing discomfort gripping a bat with his cracked thumb, may help them avoid any laxity of purpose. If the left-hander remains uneasy about playing, and Hussain has said he will give him right up until the morning of the match to be fit, his place will surely go to the all-round experience of Craig White rather than Usman Afzaal or the recently arrived Warwickshire wunderkind, Ian Bell.
New Zealand also face a similar vigil over the state of Daniel Vettori's back, though the left-arm spinner's disc problems look tame compared to the plight of Lou Vincent, who underwent minor heart surgery just five days before the Christchurch Test.
Vincent, who made 12 and 0, has been suffering from a racing heartbeat and claimed not to have felt his usual self after having a curative procedure under local anaesthetic. Unless he has a relapse, Vincent will keep his place, a situation all but Butcher can count on for England.
"We'll be picking our side from everyone who is out here," said Hussain after practice. "We'll also be sticking to basics though it will be a case of adapting to new conditions. People's expectations have gone up after the last Test, but this looks more like a typical New Zealand pitch which may do a bit to start with and then go flat.
"It will be tough going, especially if the wind gets up. It's been a long winter for most of us and some are nursing niggles. My finger, which I stubbed, is fine for batting but I may have to move out of the slips."
When he does his book in a few years' time, Hussain will no doubt admit just how close Nathan Astle came to causing a major panic. Having won the match, his job over the coming days is to build his pace bowlers up again. It may be easier said than done after news of Air New Zealand's refusal to allow Astle's bat to be carried as hand baggage. Apparently the 2lb 12oz lump of willow is considered to be a dangerous weapon, an assessment with which both Andrew Caddick and Matthew Hoggard would have to concur.
Apart from whetting the public's appetite – a far better home attendance is expected at the Basin Reserve – Astle's epochal knock has got everyone talking about the changing face of Test cricket, a trend highly topical after South Africa's record chase to beat Australia in Durban. Yesterday, Hussain was drawn into the discussion, though with his mind turned to winning another Test match, he did not come up with anything specific.
"It's probably just the natural progression any sport goes through," he said. "You can look to one-day cricket which has probably made batsmen aware of just what is realisable these days in terms of scoring rates and run chases.
"Players like Viv Richards and Ian Botham played like that, but more are doing it now. Since I began playing Tests in 1989, the pitches definitely have more in them for bowlers, making five-day draws much less likely. For that reason, Tests move along more quickly so players probably rationalise that to stamp their authority on it requires quick action too. You don't see many people playing like Geoff Boycott now."
If that is the case, and five-day matches are finishing early, it may help explain why scores in excess of 300 made in the last innings of the match, are no longer as rare as hen's teeth. The logic is simple – pitches are usually far better to bat on during days three and four than on day five when the were and tear takes its toll on the bounce.
Another reason why run-rates are now closer to five an over than two, is that most international teams have a wicketkeeper who is also a top-notch batsman. Since January 2000, there have been 112 centuries made in Test cricket, 21 of them by keepers. Andy Flower, with six, is the main contributor, followed by Adam Gilchrist who has five and Sri Lanka's, Kumara Sangakkara with four.
Apart from their own contributions, normally made quickly so that they can stay fresh for keeping wicket, their presence as a potential stop-gap mentally frees up the rest of the batting order to play their shots.
Everything is linked and the more strokes that are played, the more chances that are created, which in turn means more decisions to be made by the umpires. Given that one-day cricket has improved fielding beyond recognition, catches once deemed impossible are now plucked from the ether by athletes wearing whites.
Dismissal rates are therefore increased, something umpires have also contributed to by ignoring the old unwritten code of giving batsmen the benefit of the doubt. Television's prying eye, which has pressured umpires into avoiding the old cop-out of giving close lbws "not out", has forced batsmen to make better use of their time at the crease.
Television is forcing change fast and the International Cricket Council have agreed to use TV replays for all decisions in the ICC Trophy, due to be played this September in Colombo. Even lbws will be referred to a third umpire for careful consideration, a U-turn for a body whose playing committee, chaired by Sunil Gavaskar, appeared loath to expand the role of TV technology beyond line decisions and catches where the carry was in question.
The umpires here, Darrell Hair and Steve Dunne, will have more than their fair share of appeals to deal with, especially if the wind blows as it did when Sri Lanka visited in 1991. Then, it howled at 80mph for most of the match, which after a double century apiece by Aravinda de Silva and Martin Crowe, ended in a draw, a result only injury-hit New Zealand would be satisfied with this time.Reuse content