Atherton's test of time

Derek Pringle in Bulawayo says an aggressive approach is needed this week
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The Independent Online
Before he departed for his Spanish villa, and the team he picked set off to Zimbabwe, Raymond Illingworth pronounced: "If we can't beat this lot, then we have got problems." He is right, of course, as he insists he always is, and the entire cricket-playing world now awaits with morbid fascination as England take on the newest Test-playing nation.

After the appetiser of today's one-day international here, the attention switches to the main course of the Test series, which starts on Wednesday and England's cricketing pride now hinges with their ability to scrap with and beat tenacious opponents who are well used to playing above themselves.

Recent omens, however, seem good for England, as well as the skipper himself, who is set to break Peter May's record for the number of consecutive Test matches as England captain. In 1956 May scored an unbeaten 124 at the Queens Sports Club where England play both today's one-dayer and the first Test and the home club of Zimbabwe's finest-ever fielder, Colin Bland. It will be Michael Atherton's 38th Test in charge and if the intimidating thunderstorm cells that blitz southern Africa's high veld at this time of year are not too disruptive, then the landmark ought to be marked by victory.

Atherton, contrary to his portrayal in some newspapers, has not been at all miserable on this tour, despite the constant nagging pain of an inflamed back which pervades his every waking moment. However, the jury remains out on whether or not this new shiny happy persona is of his own volition or merely the result of some particularly effective new pain killers. Either way, he is certainly making an effort, probably at the behest of the new England Cricket Board chief, Lord MacLaurin, who feels that the product would be better sold with a smile rather than a grimace.

Upbeat or not, Atherton knows that beating Zimbabwe, who have won just a single Test since being elevated in 1992, will not be straightforward, if only because of the impossibility of making up lost time in a country where day turns to night as if at the flick of a switch.

According to the local weather gurus, England will probably have to beat their opponents in three and a half days if they are to win either of the two Tests. That means that even in the five-day matches, runs will have to be scored quickly, not an easy task against bowlers as talented as Heath Streak and Eddo Brandes, though Streak, despite his lofty place in the world ratings, looks out of sorts and short of match fitness. Yet if England can crack along at just over three runs an over and post totals over 400, then Atherton, who appears set on playing two spinners, should have enough time and runs to exploit the incisions now expected from a newly resurgent and confident Darren Gough.

In the absence of Dominic Cork, Gough has in the words of the England coach, David Lloyd, "fronted up", and assumed the mantle of strike bowler "by showing them some pace". This is something Lloyd believes will be a decisive weapon against Grant Flower and Stuart Carlisle, Zimbabwe's front- footed opening batsmen.

As an Ian Botham admirer, Gough was one of those who has been hoping to benefit from the presence of England's new motivator. He got his chance when the great all-rounder, Britain's most famous unpaid casual labourer, put in his first appearance in his new role at the final build-up before the one-day international in the nets yesterday.

In cricket, though, self- discovery is usually the best way and the combination of losing to Mashonaland and Gough's subsequent 11 wickets against Matabeleland has given this England a determined new edge. Now they must prevent it being blunted by complacency.

That and the perennial problem of bowling sides out abroad will be England's biggest challenges, and unlike the slow parabolic bounce of the bare pitches in Harare, the hard, tightly grassed surface at Queens is thought to give both sides their best chance of a result.

England will not be conceding too much in the way of local knowledge. According to David Houghton, Zimbabwe's 39-year-old batsman-coach, so little cricket is played there - most first-class games are played at Bulawayo Athletic club - it is virtually an away game for them too. Houghton last played there two years ago against Pakistan, when Zimbabwe lost by eight wickets.

For pace bowlers, overnight dews should offer some movement in the first hour. Thereafter occasional extra bounce will be on offer to the persevering, a role England are hoping will be filled by Alan Mullally and Andy Caddick, although the latter will have to increase significantly his mettle content and find a fuller length, if later spells are to be half as effective as his new-ball offerings.

Less pleasing from England's point of view is that the square's compact base of black cotton clay is unlikely to offer the finger spinners anything more than the odd widening crack for comfort. On the other hand, Paul Strang's leg-spin could thrive on the extra bounce which brings the close- fielders into play, something Robert Croft has exploited rather better than Phil Tufnell for England.

With the early order of both batting line-ups alternating left and right- handed batsmen, it is just as well Queens has the world's largest fixed sightscreens. But while it means there should be fewer delays, it will be the team whose bowling copes best with the constantly fluctuating lines of attack that is likely to take a precious lead to Harare.

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