The problems that arise from England's short cut to success

Game's rulers rue £2m loss in revenue while spectators are robbed of a day out

About 15 years ago, before mobile phones ran our lives and when England leading a cricket series 2-1 was not as rare as hen's teeth, a doctor columnist wrote that Test matches were a marvellous tonic for insomniacs. Its gentle cadences played out over five days were ideal for smoothing fevered brows, calming agitated bodies and, ultimately, encouraging sleep, he argued.

About 15 years ago, before mobile phones ran our lives and when England leading a cricket series 2-1 was not as rare as hen's teeth, a doctor columnist wrote that Test matches were a marvellous tonic for insomniacs. Its gentle cadences played out over five days were ideal for smoothing fevered brows, calming agitated bodies and, ultimately, encouraging sleep, he argued.

That was then. Medical theory like that in all disciplines is prone to being overturned from time to time, and had the same doctor proposed such a thesis on the evidence presented this summer he would probably be struck off. So far, only two of the six Tests played have gone beyond a third day and one of those, the second Test against Zimbabwe at Trent Bridge, was hit by rain to the extent that 150 overs were lost.

Yet the shortened duration is only part of the equation. Add the frenetic excitement epitomised by England's latest two-day win over the West Indies at Headingley and the buzz appears to have awakened a whole nation to cricket just as the football season, the sporting Viagra of choice over the last few years, is kicking off. So much for the insomniacs' cure.

For once, though, the "any publicity is good publicity" mantra may not hold entirely true. Certainly, as the England and Wales Cricket Board have pointed out, the publicity and euphoria generated by England's recent victories at Lord's and Headingley are priceless. Yet there can be no denying that abbreviated Test matches are costing the game money in gate receipts - thought to be about £2m so far.

Similarly, the happy smiling faces brought on by England's wins are not everywhere. At Headingley, 17,000 people had bought tickets for Saturday and although that money will be refunded, as it was for the 9,000 pre-sold tickets for the Sunday at Lord's, spectators, particularly those only able to attend at weekends, clearly look forward to their day at the cricket.

Last time the West Indies toured, a six-Test series drew 438,000 people. This time, and providing the final Test at the Oval goes at least four days, just under 300,000 will have actually seen some play, fewer than for any five-match series since the 1970's.

For Channel 4, who spent £56m for the rights to broadcast Test cricket for four years, the feelings are also mixed. Part of the attraction is even at that price sport provides cheap airtime. With five days of sheduling to fill and a minute library of archive footage (Channel 4 only began showing live cricket last year and can only buy up BBC's old footage at a rate of 20 minutes-worth a season), early finishes leave much airtime to be filled.

Apart from the logistical dilemma of rescheduling - Saturday's highlights slot was replaced by a Big Brother repeat , while Sunday was filled with little more than chewing-gum for the eyes - overall costs are raised too. It also upsets those viewers who want to see cricket, while adding to the disenchantment of advertisers, who pay Channel 4 around £80,000 a series to target them with their products. Given that a match needs to last at least 300 overs to get it into the fourth day, the causes of early finishes are complex.

For a start, they appear to be a phenomenon that mainly involves England teams playing in English conditions. Even when West Indies were whitewashed by South Africa 18 months ago, only the second Test at Port Elizabeth, which lasted 210.2 overs, is on a par with their recent matches this summer at Lord's (234.2 overs), Headingley (156.5 overs), and Edgbaston (263.5 overs).

At the moment the balance between bat and ball is too loaded in favour of the latter, a situation that is being blamed on a combination of pitches, poor techniques and the modern cricket ball. With a climate as fickle as ours it can be a difficult balance to strike, but Test pitches in this country have declined noticeably in the past five years.

Obviously, there will always be people who would like to return to the days when batsmen lorded it over bowlers on placid shirt-fronts, but equally there are those delighting in the visceral thrill of low-scoring Test matches, such as Headingley, where every ball takes on a vital significance. Indeed, I have never seen the Western Terrace more entranced by the cricket which, given the enormous amounts of alcohol normally ingested there, must count for something.

One of the main reasons Test pitches here are so bad, the exceptions being Trent Bridge and Old Trafford, is that they are the victims of an experiment hatched by the game's bosses in the 1980s. Back then, the poor state of English batting was blamed on the slow squares, so a plan was made to relay them with special loam soils to provide a hard, even-bouncing surface. As Michael Atherton has recently testified, the opposite has occurred, with surfaces either starting damp to avoid cracking, or scarred by ever-widening fissures if dry. Either way, excessive movement - lateral when damp, vertical when dry - is usually achieved by seam bowlers, with spinners increasingly redundant.

By and large the groundsmen are powerless, as are most batsmen, especially when the bowling is of the quality provided by the likes of Darren Gough, Andy Caddick, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Whether the balls now used contribute to the excessive movement, by staying harder longer, is still open to question.

However, what is beyond doubt is that some already mediocre techniques are being exposed. Shot selection, something all the great players in history have excelled in, is also affected. Instead of playing themselves in, a tactic that normally allowed batting to become progressively easier, batsmen now prefer to chance their arm from the off. Of course, it is not impossible to play the old way, even on fruity surfaces, as both Michael Vaughan and Ramnaresh Sarwan showed.

With history pending at The Oval in 10 days' time, a grand finale that has seen the first four days sold out, the pitch will take second place to the home side's attempts to win a series against the West Indies for the first time since 1969. The surface, especially in late August, normally takes some spin. In fact, three years ago against Australia Phil Tufnell took 11 wickets and England will surely include him again this time.

After 23 years of sponsoring England Test matches, the Oval Test will be Cornhill's final hurrah as well and, with new sponsors to be find, you sense the ECB will be happy whatever the duration of the match, provided England do not lose it.

In the short-term any gains may well prove satisfactory, but until England learn to win Tests the hard way, outplaying the opposition for days rather than sessions, on proper pitches, they will never match the best teams. Until that occurs, the current euphoria will be little more than a passing curiosity.

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