June 5, 2003

Not such an acid Test

England v Zimbabwe, 2nd Test, Chester-le-Street, Day One
Thousands of northern prayers were answered when Chester-le-Street's first day of Test cricket dawned fine. The trappings were all in place: the countdown clock, the expectant media chatter, the local boy Steve Harmison champing at the bit to bowl the first ball (he didn't, because Nasser Hussain won the toss and batted). Even Phil Tufnell, the newly crowned King of the Jungle, was there.

The ground looked a picture, and the crowd was a pretty good one. All that was missing was the usual tension associated with Test cricket - that worrying feeling that England were struggling for supremacy. After the Lord's Test, where Zimbabwe rolled over and died on the third day, the general opinion was that England couldn't lose. That feeling probably contributed to the mid-afternoon wobble, when three quick wickets tumbled as Douglas Hondo was briefly accorded supercharged status.

Normal service was restored by Alec Stewart (no change there, then) and Anthony McGrath - and even McGrath's mum might have thought it a bit fanciful a month ago if she'd been told he would soon have a Test average pushing 100.

There has been much talk of whether this Zimbabwean side is the weakest ever to tour England. Despite today's showing with the ball, they are certainly in contention for that dubious honour. Only Grant Flower of the batsmen has scored a Test century, and even he averages less than 10 with the bat in Tests in England.

I was asked before the first Test to nominate the other contenders for Weakest Team Since The Last War, and probably alienated half of New Zealand by plumping for the 1958 Kiwis, who were bowled out for under 100 five times in five Tests, and would have lost 5-0 if it hadn't rained for days on end at The Oval. They could make nothing of Tony Lock, who took 34 wickets at 7.47 with his slow left-arm spin. That tour came in the middle of what looks at first sight to have been a great run by England at home: 3-0 against West Indies in 1957, 4-0 v NZ in 1958, an unprecedented 5-0 v India in 1959, and 3-0 v South Africa in 1960 - 15-0 in four years. The record was spoilt a bit by going down 4-0 in Australia in 1958-59 ... some things never change.

It might have looked good, but actually it was a pretty dire time. All four of those sides were terribly weak - even the West Indians underperformed despite having some great names on board. One-sided cricket is boring, and cricketwise the '50s are about the dullest decade on record - that's the main reason one-day cricket started with such a bang in the 1960s. I'm quite relieved to say that I wasn't around at the time, but reading about those series you're struck by the inevitability of it all. Tension was absent.

And there remains a lack of tension about this match, too. It wasn't a great batting effort by England on a belter of a pitch. But it's still hard to envisage Zimbabwe bowling England out cheaply twice, or England not bowling Zimbabwe out twice, although it might well take rather longer than a day. In 2000 the Zimbabweans bounced back after a similarly chastening defeat at Lord's and competed well in the second Test at Trent Bridge. But the main man then was Murray Goodwin, a classy cutter who cracked 148 not out. Goodwin scored 35 this week - for Sussex, not Zimbabwe. Andy Flower, Zimbabwe's best batsman by a street (or maybe a Streak), was attempting his usual rescue act after his side lost early wickets. That side was Essex, not Zimbabwe (and he failed, possibly because he had half an eye on events at the Riverside).

It's simplistic to say this, because there are political currents, undercurrents and crosscurrents at work here ... but if Zimbabwe want to compete at international level, they can't go on losing their best players. Otherwise they'll go on losing their Test matches.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.