Almost a century has passed since neutral Test matches were last played in England. It has taken that long to recover from the unmitigated failure.
Attendances were low, the weather was foul, the cricket was fouler still when in 1912 Australia played South Africa in three Tests as part of a triangular competition which also included England. So disastrous was it that by season's end proposals were being offered for a change in the structure of the game.
The portents for the two-match series between Australia and Pakistan which begins at Lord's today are brighter. It is being played not because of any innate appeal or for commercial gain (though it is to be fervently anticipated that there will be of some of both), but because the terrorist threat makes it impossible for Pakistan to play at home.
The international game there was halted in March last year when the Sri Lankan team coach, on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore for the third day's play of the second Test, was attacked. Several players were injured, seven policeman were killed. The match was, of course, abandoned immediately and no others will be starting any time soon.
It is to the credit of the England and Wales Cricket Board that it has extended a welcome to Pakistan, for whom it will be a home series. They will revert to being tourists again when they play England in four Tests later in the summer.
Following the success of the two Twenty20 matches between the teams at Edgbaston last week when 18,000 people turned up, ticket sales at Lord's have been pleasingly brisk, with 12,000 already taken up on the first two days and not many fewer on the third and fourth. That does not take MCC members into account and if the sun shines and the match develops into a decent contest the ground will be close to full.
The prospects are less encouraging for Leeds – where the second Test will be played next week – despite earnest promotional efforts by the Yorkshire county club among the expatriate Pakistani communities. This doubtless prompted Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, to issue a rallying cry yesterday.
The number of fans may well decide whether England continues to be a home country for Pakistan matches. Clarke was adamant that the ECB will support Pakistan "in its hour of need" but grounds will refuse to stage matches if crowds are low.
Australia will start as the overwhelming favourites. They have won the last 12 Tests between the countries and Pakistan have won only one of their last 17 against any opposition. The last time they beat Australia was in 1995 and in Shahid Afridi they have appointed a maverick captain, who has long been considered a one-day specialist and has not appeared in a Test for four years.
In Australia last winter, Pakistan were in a state of constant disharmony and lost every match. Yet they are brimming with outrageous talent; in the 20-year-old Umar Akmal they may have a batsman for the ages and a similar testimony can be delivered on behalf of the 18-year-old Mohammad Aamer as a fast bowler.
Collectively, Pakistan's top order batting looks brittle but there is the suspicion that Australia's is not what it used to be.
The bowling attacks are evenly matched, though the return of the fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus to complement Mitchell Johnson may be significant for Australia. A keenly fought contest will bring its own reward. Pakistan, in particular, and Test cricket in general need support and need it now.
Not that much changes. Following the 1912 catastrophe the former demon fast bowler for Australia, Frederick Spofforth, then nearly 60, wrote to the Sportsman to say that to pep up the game two runs should in future be awarded to the fielding side for every maiden over they bowled.
It received a rightly cool reception from Wisden in its 1913 edition and in the notes from the editor the following sentiment appeared, demonstrating that nothing has changed: "Cricket does not stand in need of alterations. When played in the proper spirit – every match on its own merits – the game is as good as ever it was. It must not be tampered with to please people who vainly think that it can have the concentrated excitement of an hour and a half's football."Reuse content