Pitch battle falls flat

And so England's Lord's hoodoo grinds on into another year. Yet another draw, their sixth in a row on this desperate strip of turf, and by the time the two teams reached their farcical "gentleman's agreement" midway through the final session, England's resignation was graffiti-ed across their body language. With apologies to Hashim Amla, this was a stultifying day's cricket, one that did no favours whatsoever to a form of the game that can feel itself being marginalised with every passing minute.
Test cricket is said to be dying, and on this evidence its most famous pitch is already dead. England have posted scores in excess of 500 in the first innings in six out of their last nine Tests at Lord's, yet they've converted those starts into a solitary victory and five draws. There have been 23 English centurions in the past ten matches alone, and South Africa have just added four overseas entries in a single contest. It's the accolade that cricketers dream about as children, but these days the dressing-room honours board has about as much exclusivity as a Blairite New Year Honours List.

It's a sad indictment of the times. The MCC, the guardians of the game for two centuries, spent most of this match backtracking on a leaked plan to transform the height of the English summer into a Twenty20 bonanza. While the proposal may have its merits, the timing of the disclosure was unfortunate to say the least. The net effect was to create distractions on all fronts, and in the final analysis, no party was more distracted than the players themselves.

This isn't how great escapes should feel. When Michael Atherton and Jack Russell defied South Africa at Johannesburg in 1995-96, they galloped off the field with arms linked around each other's shoulders, into the grateful embrace of their team-mates. When Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee saw off Steve Harmison at Old Trafford in 2005, the Australian balcony erupted as if they'd sealed a famous win.

Today, Amla and Ashwell Prince seemed every bit as bored as England's fielders, as between them they concocted a spurious appeal against the light, and skulked back to the pavilion. "It wasn't dark, we'd just had enough," admitted Michael Vaughan, with disarming candour. It is a crime against Test cricket that a match that was so eagerly anticipated, and so delicately poised when Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell came together on the first afternoon, could flounder in such a pathetic manner.

Amla's century was a sublimely compiled effort, one that built on the foundations laid down by Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie, and applied some sweetly sculpted touches as the innings wore on and his confidence in the conditions grew. But not even he could pretend it had been a challenge. In 2004-05, he made 36 runs in two Tests as Harmison and Co. bounced him back to provincial cricket, and though England tried the same tactic this time around, there simply wasn't, in Vaughan's words, enough "zest" in the pitch.

Nor was there enough drama in South Africa's survival, which amplifies the excellence of the rearguard they mounted, but also the futility of the final two days. "A hundred at Lord's, it's great," said McKenzie, the real star of the second innings. "But I haven't really rated it in terms of where it is. I'll definitely take the runs, but I'm under no illusions that things will get tougher." You can't imagine Atherton, or Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey shrugging off such a monumental achievement only minutes after it had been completed.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this contest, and that is the immediate onset of the second Test at Headingley. The effort and exhaustion of the Lord's experience means England are already approaching Leeds with trepidation, as they sense the momentum of the series swinging the way of the visitors.

"If we win the toss and bat, it'll be a long fielding session for them," said McKenzie, with a touch of relish in his voice. "We let ourselves down on the first couple of days, but we showed a lot of character in coming back for the last two days. We're into full competition mode now, and we've got away with having not been up for it for the first two days. We won't be sitting back any more."

"It's a slight concern," said Vaughan. "Our bowlers will be feeling weary, but hopefully the back-room staff can work their magic. I'm sure we won't do much fielding practice over the next few days, but we haven't had to chase many balls because it's been pretty static."

Static is one way of putting it. The decent final-day crowd who turned up to watch a challenging day of Test cricket, only to be left booing in the late-afternoon sun, might have another word for it. Lord's and the MCC clearly want to be seen as innovators at this critical juncture for the game. But perhaps they'd do well to break off from gazing at the stars for a while, and start looking down under their feet.