June 7, 2003

Time for a bit of altruism

England v Zimbabwe, 2nd Test, Chester-le-Street, Day 3

The Riverside: a worthy Test venue

And so ends one of the more pointless Test series of recent times. Zimbabwe lived down to most expectations, give or take Doug Hondo's three-wicket burst and some welcome defiance from Dion Ebrahim and Travis Friend, while England's bowlers did precisely what was asked of them. On a more positive note, Chester-le-Street proved itself a worthy Test venue, even if a three-day finish was not quite what the treasurer would have had in mind.

To be fair, Zimbabwe have given England about as many problems in this series as England themselves gave Australia in the first two Tests of last winter, although faint praise has rarely been so damning. The discipline shown by Zimbabwe's seamers - both here and at Lord's - has taken several of England's finest by surprise (not least Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain), and if they had taken some crucial catches on the first afternoon, England might have faced a minor embarrassment. Zimbabwe's batting, sadly, has been another story entirely.

In two days, Zimbabwe lost 18 wickets to a seam attack boasting seven caps between them (never have the three suffixes "-son" been so appropriate). As was the case with James Anderson at Lord's, Richard Johnson struggled to repeat his magic of the first innings, but Anderson himself has demonstrated he has the stamina to perform throughout a Test - not that Zimbabwe's first innings was especially draining. Steve Harmison, meanwhile, continued his happy knack of random wickets at random moments. His scattergun style has yet to run through a side, but only once in 12 innings has he failed to take a wicket.

There is little point in criticising Zimbabwe for their lack of competitiveness - any side that is forced to push the admirable Tatenda Taibu up to No. 5 deserves sympathy rather than condemnation. Politics and protests have dogged the team throughout, and Grant Flower, Zimbabwe's most-capped player and the only man in the team with a Test century, has cut a mournful figure. It would surprise no-one if he calls it quits at the end of the one-day series.

England now shelve their whites to begin a six-week spree of one-day matches, and by the time they reconvene at Edgbaston for the first Test against South Africa, this blip of a series will have been forgotten. In the circumstances, therefore, a touch of altruism would not have gone amiss from the tour organisers. If the ECB erred in allowing this tour to go ahead in the first place, then they compounded that mistake by affording Zimbabwe such inadequate preparation for the Tests.

Zimbabwe have been overawed in three consecutive Test innings, before more-or-less knuckling down at the final attempt. It is not a coincidence. This team, a pair of old sweats apart, are on the steepest of learning curves, and three warm-up matches against half-cocked county opposition is cruelly misleading. After a ten-wicket victory over British Universities, Zimbabwe faced Worcestershire, Sussex and Middlesex, all of whom were shorn of a glut of their finest players.

Old lags such as Graeme Hick, Steve Rhodes and Chris Adams all opted out of the warm-up games. The only players of Test experience who chose to face Zimbabwe were Andrew Hall of South Africa and, ironically, their very own Murray Goodwin, who scored a Test century on Zimbabwe's last tour in 2000, but has since retired because of the political situation.

Bangladesh are due in England in 2005, and a similarly pointless series beckons. It is in England's best interests to provide worthy opposition - England A teams, U19 teams, county select XIs - both for the future of the game, and for the coffers of the counties.

Click here for the Bulletin