Everyone knows it: there are too many pointless games in empty stadiums with players who are knackered, if not bored

Robert Winder ON SATURDAY
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If you thought the West Indies looked tired on Thursday, when they were skittled out by the vicious pace and bounce of Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork, and play kept stopping for good light, then you should have seen them last Monday. It was a beguiling scene, a perfect setting for the climax of the tourists' match against Middlesex. Lord's was a picture: the grass was green, the sky was blue, the seats were warm, the lager was cold; birds chirruped in the trees at the Nursery End, and sun glinted off the white parasols over the Mound Stand. Earth, you could be forgiven for thinking, had a tough job coming up with anything to show more fair.

But out on the pitch it was a different matter. The West Indies were in a winning position, and the game was poised for an exciting finish. If Middlesex followed on the West Indies could bowl them out and win by an innings. Or - better still - we might end up seeing Brian Lara and Carl Hooper swinging the bat in the last hour. It could have been a brilliant match, but of course it wasn't. The West Indies didn't enforce the follow- on, opting instead for a bit of batting practice. The "lead" went past 400, but by mid-afternoon both sides had given up even pretending. Mark Ramprakash was bowling to Keith Arthurton and Arthurton was... blocking. The commentators reported that the game "fizzled out" or "subsided". The truth was that it was stabbed through the heart. If you want to watch games where no one is trying to win, you might as well watch wrestling (or, er, football). Luckily, the crowd was small: the public knows by now that these matches aren't worth watching. But when people started talking about the man of the match, you couldn't help thinking: what match?

It's a perennial problem for touring sides. When England went to Australia last winter it looked, as they criss-crossed the country playing anyone who had a pitch, more like an air-miles competition than a cricket tour. And when South Africa came to England last summer, Jack Russell was booed by his home crowd for ruining a match in order to prevent the tourists from batting. Touring teams need strong fixtures between the internationals, but are they games or just nets? Even the counties these days see matches against the tourists as a chance to rest their best players. So you have to ask: is there any point to them at all?

At Lord's, you couldn't blame the West Indies. With a Test match coming up, the last thing they needed was for Curtly Ambrose to wrench his troubled groin or Ian Bishop to risk his fragile back. But it was yet another sign that professional cricket is in a bad spot. Everyone knows it: there are too many pointless games in empty stadiums with players who are knackered, if not bored. If Brazil were touring England and played Manchester United, the fans would be hanging off the floodlights at Old Trafford. But here we had one of the best teams in the world, and no one was surprised when it turned out to be an almost complete waste of time.

What's to be done? The sponsors have tried to bribe the players into putting on a good show by offering a pounds 50,000 purse (the Tetley Challenge) as an incentive for them to win all their matches. But when they lost against Sussex they waved goodbye to the jackpot, so from now on the county matches have little at stake. But surely it can't be beyond the wit of the administrators to devise a fixture list for touring sides that produced watchable games. Why not, for instance, produce regional teams to play the touring side? Instead of playing eight or nine matches against individual counties, they could play four or five against, say, the North, the Midlands, the South-West and the South-East. For the tourists the matches would be a real test against proper opposition: they would have to try. And for English cricket it would be even more exciting: a brave new level of top cricket and a good way to try out Test hopefuls. You could pick a strong XI from Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex, and the competition for places would be keen. The matches could be four-day or - why not? - five-day affairs. Who knows - people might even go and watch them.

It won't happen, of course. The counties lose their best players to the Test team, and wouldn't like losing them for regional contests as well. But everyone knows that something has to give. At the moment it looks as though West Indies are obliged to play the counties only to make sure they are just as fagged out as the England players. When Lara came here last spring, trailing clouds of glorious runs, there were those who muttered that the hard grind of the circuit might "find him out" - as if the main job of the county game was to dim its brightest lights. For a couple of months, Lara smeared egg all over their faces. But half-way through the season it seemed to dawn on him that the only way to get a day off was to be out. The legacy is plain to see: he still bats like someone in a father's match, a class above but reluctant to embarrass the kids' bowling. And it's not just Lara - no batsman on either side has scored a century this summer. At Lord's on Monday, Sherwin Campbell dropped to No 11, and the West Indies declared at nine down. Kenny Benjamin tonked Ramprakash for a few sixes and the small crowd jeered. Practice - what practice?