It used to be much more fun waiting for England teams to be picked. The selectors could be relied on to bow to whim, public opinion or both by naming the latest fad. But the present lot are spoiling it for everybody.
They seem intent on taking the art to a new level by spending hour upon hour in secret conclave and doing precisely nothing. It takes immense knowledge of players and thousands of miles of travelling to do that. Whoever signs the expenses at the England and Wales Cricket Board may just start to ponder a bit over claims reading something like: "Mileage to Chelmsford to watch Essex v Leicestershire – Ravi Bopara breezy 87, no reason to alter squad".
But the time may have come. The one-day part of the summer – or at least the first one-day part – is almost upon us and, paradoxically, at least two players must use it to salvage their Test careers. Ian Bell and, especially, Paul Collingwood have been in moderate form. Their failures in the first innings of the Third Test may be the tipping point.
If both were to score runs in the NatWest Series which starts on Friday, there would arise the question of whether that ought to prolong their presence in the Test XI. It would have to be taken into account, but it would hardly be conclusive evidence.
The break between Tests may give the selectors breathing space which, in turn, should clear their heads. This has not been an especially competent series for either side – ignoring the contributions of Collingwood and Bell. New Zealand have not been as innocuous as West Indies were at the start of last summer, but so far the contest has been a poor advertisement for Test cricket as the acme of the game.
It has often been thrilling because of its flaws, but that should be of scant consolation to the aficionados who bang on about Test cricket's purity. The results of an annual survey in Australia last week showed that cricket has slipped to third in the chart of their most popular sports, behind tennis with a 57 per cent rating and swimming (55). At 53, cricket shed six points in a year, losing all its previous gains. It's a good job Australia thumped England in the Ashes and won the World Cup for the third successive time, otherwise it might really have struggled.
Test cricket might have featured in an important meeting at Lord's yesterday. Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, held discussions with Lalit Modi, the vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and commissioner of the Indian Premier League, which has been the big hit of the year so far.
It will have been rather good sport, since both men are fairly certain of their ground in most matters. Modi would doubtless have trumpeted the IPL's triumph and what it could do for the rest of the world. And what it has done immediately is to ensure the formation of the Twenty20 Champions League, which was announced after yesterday's meeting which also involved Norman Arendse, president of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. The first prize will be a breathtaking $5m (£2.55m) and will be contested by the two leading teams in England, India, Australia and South Africa in Dubai or India this autumn. It will lend an unprecedented frisson to the English competition, which begins on Wednesday.
Clarke, while recognising there must be more T20, is also aware of a deeper duty. One of his most pertinent opinions remains his point on the eve of the season that the greatest challenge facing the International Cricket Council is protecting Test cricket. Clarke will have raised the topic yesterday, since he is not as sanguine as many observers. It was heartening that I S Bindra, the Indian who will be the ICC's principal adviser, said yesterday that the governing body may announce a world Test championship next month, along with plans to attract bigger audiences.
Twenty20 comes back to England in Manchester on Friday, a strange juxtaposition since the Victorian nature of Old Trafford is somewhat at odds with the 21st-century phenomenon. The match and the one-day series to follow have assumed a veritable plethora of significance.
If two batsmen are searching for Test form, the rest of the team are vying for places in the side for the one-off T20 match in Antigua next December, to be played for $20 million (£10m) against a West Indies XI. The size of the purse has naturally led to a somewhat unseemly scramble about who gets what. What was winner-take-all may now not be, which would considerably diminish interest in the contest. This will be another conundrum for selectors. It is one thing to pick any old Test squad, quite another to pick a team in which every member can become a millionaire for three hours' work. That is when they might fall back on the old standbyof continuity.
All the selectors are pretty new at the game – Geoff Miller may have been at it for years but this is new territory as chairman. The next four weeks will allow them to look at the team from afar without a Test match round the next corner, as has been the case since Miller and his team took over.
Collingwood has had a particularly lean patch. It is almost a year since he scored the most recent of his five Test hundreds, against West Indies on his home ground at the Riverside. In the 11 matches since, Collingwood, whose batting average before the current match was 41.64,has averaged 33.58. In the same time, Bell's average is 39.26. Both figures were before the Notting-ham Test, both men are struggling to convince.
Perhaps the selectors could pick Andrew Flintoff at six, Bopara at five, with Tim Ambrose and Stuart Broad forming a strong late middle order. They have a month now to reflect.