Riverside's hollow ritual in a game without winners

Second Test: ICC must come to the aid of the weak to safeguard the future
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The Independent Online

Sooner or later - but preferably tomorrow - the structure of Test cricket will be changed. If it is allowed to continue along its current, uneven course, it will invoke the most unlikely but serious of sporting charges: of bringing itself into disrepute.

The brief, all too brief, events of this summer have provided a further catalyst for action. Zimbabwe have been constantly weak and frequently feeble. The two matches that they have played against England in the npower series have been Tests in name only.

This is not the carping of jaundiced observers anxious not to give too much credit to Nasser Hussain's England side. England have played positively and well against what has been put in front of them. But the old guard in the team will know the truth, and they ought to have imparted it to the new boys. This is kid's stuff.

Much has been made - most of it critical - of the small attendance of 9,000 for the first day of the first Test match to be staged at the Riverside. But the North-east sporting public did not get where they are through being fooled by artificial goods. It has been a smashing event but a poor contest.

The one-sided nature of affairs has thrown the newly reconstituted International Cricket Council's Test Championship into sharp relief. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are inept. As the most recent additions to the list of Test nations, it is understandable that they should be at the foot of the table, on 59 points and four points respectively. (West Indies in eighth place are on 79, England in fifth are on 97).

Test cricket is invariably cited as the apogee of the greatest of team games. Strong men can go misty-eyed in describ-ing its endless shifts, patterns and stratagems, allied to its unique capacity for finding what is in a man's soul. It takes time to learn. But Zimbabwe are a demonstrably poorer side now than they have been at any time since they were granted Test status in the early Nineties. The Second Test has merely reinforced their shortcomings, despite the plucky rearguard action yesterday. Bangladesh are on a run of 13 losses.

It should be emphasised that there have been poor sides before. The Indian sides of 1952 and 1967 were no great shakes, and the New Zealand tourists of 1958 made five double-figure scores in their 10 innings. It seems ridiculous now to think that they should have been granted five Test matches. Yet the Kiwis had in their ranks Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid, proper Test players both. Then, there was always the chance that they would improve. Neither Zimbabwe nor Bangladesh show signs of doing so. Australia, top of the table on 129 points and going away, play both at home this year, and you can only fear for the damage that they will inflict - psychological, certainly, and physical, possibly.

There is a case for doing nothing, as the ICC are perhaps inclined, or may be forced, to do. Other sports have mismatches. Every Rugby Union World Cup throws up a cricket score or two (though not one that Zimbabwe would recognise). Occasionally, England will be presented with a minnow at football whom they will devour without anybody groaning with indigestion. And it could easily be said that the risible friendly matches in international football in which players are regularly substituted are far more disreputable.

But Test cricket has moved on. The ICC like to think they are running a global game. Not quite, but their intentions are admirable. The way the game is played now is heavily stacked against the draw. Zimbabwe's batting techniques are so frail that they could never bat for long enough.

In theory, this might be acceptable. But the Test Championship means that each of the Test nations must play each other home and way in a series of at least two matches every five years. The programme has been drawn up until 2010. This means that England will go to Bangladesh this winter and be hosts to Bangladesh in 2005.

Marketing prowess will not necessarily be helpful in selling the delights of what is on offer. The television companies who pay for the game and, more importantly, the viewers they hope to persuade to watch will not continue to be fooled.

The swiftest solution would be to have a two-division championship - of five nations in each if you continue with the current 10 nations, or six each if, say, Kenya and Holland were to be added. But that would automatically diminish the status of the second-division matches. Would they really be Tests? And what if England, as would be possible in some years, drop to the second division? The Ashes, the biggest drawcard in cricket in this country and how it all started, would be no more. That is not an option. So, two divisions are not either.

Perhaps, then, the less capable nations could be given matches against the A teams of other countries. This might provide more equal contests - though not necessarily against Australia - while helping them to improve. But where would this lead? How would they break into the élite grouping? And how could they be persuaded to surrender the income and kudos that Test cricket generates?

The ICC will have to help Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to help themselves. This will be tough in Zimbabwe, where the whole state is in meltdown and cricket hardly makes any list, let alone one containing priorities. But they cannot prepare for Test cricket without playing meaningful first-class cricket. This is not a passing worry any longer; it has the potential to damage the fabric of the game.