James Lawton: Two series of high drama show Tests still have power to thrill

Duncan Fletcher's suggestions to improve the five-day game are well meant but recent contests show there is no need for major surgery
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The Independent Online

Duncan Fletcher, England's former coach, is maybe not an easily acquired taste. But if he is obdurate in defence of his own reputation, and was partisan and arbitrary to a fault even in his dealings with his own players, no one doubts that he has a formidable cricket brain.

It is thus fascinating to hear some of his ideas for the possible improvement of Test cricket, most thought-provokingly a system which gives both teams an allotment of overs, say 150 each, which they can draw upon as they choose over the course of two innings.

This, Fletcher believes after experiments in South Africa back in his days as coach of Glamorgan, would streamline Test cricket, maybe reduce it effectively to four days, while certainly doing away with the kind of appalling time-wasting which saw England threaten the superb momentum of the current Test in Cape Town by bowling 10 overs in an hour, with two of them coming from the spinning department.

It would also make the outrageous stalling of someone like Jonathan Trott a nonsense as well as an affront to what we like to call the spirit of the game.

However, thanks Duncan, but no thanks.

Test cricket may at one level be a huge repository of double standards, gamesmanship and all-round chicanery, it might also include passages of play which cause you severely to question your will to live, but there is surely no hardship here holding the view of such luminaries as the late playwright Samuel Beckett and the old rocker Mick Jagger that sport is never likely to come up with a more intriguing way of occupying not three or four but five days.

Test cricket, as we have seen in the last summer of the Ashes, and in the match that is still unfolding in Cape Town and the one won so dramatically by Australia against Pakistan, does not need a new shape or new rules.

It just needs the faith that is required to give it the space and the time to prove what some have known all along.

It is that such racy little inventions as Twenty20 can never be more than money-injecting sideshows with limited shelf life.

Really, what kind of rival plot line could a Twenty20 collision ever seriously present to the kind of drama still unfolding at the exquisite Newlands ground?

Is the charmed youth Stuart Broad truly a heroic figure or is his brilliance bound to be weighed down by too heavy a cargo of petulance, and when he placed his boot on the ball the other day was he cheating or simply refusing to bend his back?

Huge questions one day, the merest trivia the next when Kevin Pietersen came out to face one of the great challenges of his career and returned to the pavilion soon after, mouthing bitterly the words "out, out, out" and then a profanity, after confirming with his team-mate Trott that there was no point in referring to technology.

For Pietersen the personal drama now has to be resolved in the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg at the final Test.

Meanwhile, the shuffling, eternally procrastinating Trott holds a thin red line with the nightwatchman Jimmy Anderson, Paul Collingwood, who so loves the fight, and maybe Ian Bell will show that there is indeed a little iron some way down there in the silk folds of his exceptional skill.

The instinct is that the South Africans, for whom their captain Graeme Smith has performed so immensely, both as a batsman and a knowing captain, that it seems ridiculous that he is still a mere 28, will be able to apply a little too much pressure over 90 overs.

But then we said that last summer in Cardiff when Ricky Ponting's Australians were bearing down and salvation came, finally, from Anderson and, of all people, the normally excitable Monty Panesar.

Unfortunately, we can rhapsodise as long as we like about the potential of Test cricket to so regularly dwarf all other forms of the sport, but that doesn't fill the empty seats in Kingston or Mumbai, or at Centurion at the start of the current series. This, no doubt, is why a cricket man like Fletcher bothers to make the case for a new, improved form of the Test game – one which has rules which might just sweep away some of the worst of the irritations.

It is an initiative which cannot be scorned because we know well enough how money has become the most persuasive factor in almost all the most vital decisions about the future of sport and at some point, too, the TV paymaster will surely have his say. But then there must also be the fear that in an effort to protect Test cricket, to make it stronger in commercial terms, something quite unique will be lost.

Better, surely, for a Trott to be told that his behaviour is unacceptable, that it is an offence not just against the spirit of the game but the most basic good manners and, as in the case of some famous golfer who believes the world must await his every move, it is quite reasonable for him to be placed on the clock. If it is believed Broad has deliberately tampered with the ball, he should be properly punished and, if he is guilty or innocent, next time he might just stoop to pick up the ball.

There is no question that Test cricket has some important housekeeping to do.

Yet, in this week of all weeks, there is surely no case for redesign. The old house, after all, has rarely looked in better nick.

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