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Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 13:42 GMT
High octane cricket
Nathan Astle hits out as Andrew Flintoff watches
Astle's double century is a result of a new approach
By BBC Sport Online's Martin Gough

Graham Thorpe on Saturday described as "a thing of the past" the view that Test cricket was a dull game.

And he had good reason for his observation after his spectacular double century on the third day, made from just 231 balls, was eclipsed the following afternoon by Nathan Astle's blitz.

The Christchurch Test was one of the most exciting ever witnessed, but several recent five-day matches have fallen into the same category as the days of bore-draws are consigned to the past.

Astle took just 153 balls to reach 200, and put the home side within reach of a preposterous victory, chasing 550 for victory.

The double ton was the fastest ever in terms of deliveries faced, and second in minutes occupied.

Although the balls taken by Sir Donald Bradman to pass 200 at Headingley is not recorded, his then-record 334 came from a total of 446 deliveries, averaging out at 133 per hundred.

Adam Gilchrist gained comparison with Bradman himself last month, when he broke a 20-year record for the fastest Test 200, but his 218-ball effort has been quickly relegated in this new age of the high-octane Test.

Results more probable

New Zealand's 451 was the second-highest fourth innings total ever, with only England's 654 for five chasing 696 against South Africa at Durban in 1938 eclipsing it.

That innings took 218.2 overs to accumulate before the tourists realised that they might miss their boat home, and the timeless Test was declared a draw on the 10th day of play.

  Fastest 200s by deliveries
153, NJ Astle, NZ v Eng, Christchurch, 2001-02
212, AC Gilchrist Aus v SA, Johannesburg, 2001-02
220, IT Botham Eng v Ind, The Oval, 1982
231, GP Thorpe Eng v NZ, Christchurch 2001-02
232, CG Greenidge WI v Eng, Lord's, 1984
Much has changed since then, of course, but it is in the last five years that the pace of the game has upped considerably, to such an extent that it was suggested last year that Test matches be cut to four days.

Even in countries where weather often interrupts play - England and New Zealand being the prime sufferers - runs are currently being scored so quickly that a day can be lost without the result suffering.

Teams no longer consider batting for a draw when faced with a formidable fourth innings requirement.

Steve Waugh's side showed that in Cape Town last week, when they set off violently in pursuit of 331 - 151 more than the ground record.

Moral duty

And, as these examples suggest, Australia have been the prime movers in upping the pace of one-day cricket's once-staid elder brother.

With a confidence borne of the one-day game, Waugh's warriors gained a record 16 consecutive Test victories by fighting fire with fire.

Adam Gilchrist in Cape Town
Gilchrist's record was only set a fortnight ago
A longer-than-average batting line-up, with Gilchrist often at seven, meant that they could afford to take risks higher up the order, safe in the knowledge that others could pick up the pieces.

Suddenly, the old maxim of three runs per over being a brisk pace has been ripped up, and Australia regularly touch a run a ball.

They have drawn just three matches in the last 30 - all during a weather-hit home series with New Zealand this season.

And they are even content to lose the odd game - witness the generous declaration at Headingley last year - to keep the tempo high.

As when any side dominates a sport so completely, other teams have realized that the only way they can compete with Australia is to follow their lead.

And Waugh has even invoked a moral obligation to the fans to make Test cricket more entertaining, seeing anyone trying to bat for time being roundly criticized for killing the spectacle.

Lost skills

But this approach is not without its dangers, and Australia's own fans have been quick to complain when, on a few occasions, the approach has backfired.

New Zealand came within 10 runs of victory after another generous declaration at Brisbane in November and, as the following matches ended in draws, that decision could have cost the home side the series.

Michael Atherton's 185 in Johannesburg
Innings like Atherton's are becoming less valued
In the past there was merit in a side saving a match by batting out a draw, but the ability to bat for time is diminishing as the one-day ethic permeates even to Test level.

Increasingly, batsmen appear unable to judge each ball on its merits as they look to make scoring opportunities from every ball.

Michael Atherton's 185 at Johannesburg in 1995 lasted 643 minutes as the determined Lancastrian single-handedly saved England from defeat.

But, as they looked to bat out a draw against Pakistan at Old Trafford last summer, a succession of one-day shots saw England slump from 229 for five to 261 all out, an defeat by 108 runs.

The mantra of attack being the best form of defence was so entrenched that simple defence had been forgotten.

As the last few weeks have proven, there is little more exciting that watching fire being met with fire but, if they continue to live solely by the sword, sides risk dying by the sword too.

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