Cork's boost for Atherton

England's leading bowler is quickly back in the swing but their captain is still caught in a personal crisis
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THE England captain may still be struggling, but his team are moving towards the second part of their winter with a great deal more resolve than they showed in the first. With less than a week before the first Test in Auckland, England flexed their bowling muscle to dismiss Northern Districts for 69 before lunch.

It was a feat David Lloyd, the coach, felt was probably a first for all concerned. It came at a cost, however, as it quickly exposed Atherton's woeful lack of form on a pitch juicier than an overripe Kiwi fruit - something Atherton had obviously recognised when he won the toss and opted to bowl.

Occasionally, though, such one-sided conditions can galvanise a batsman into feeling satisfied from simply holding an end up, at which Atherton is normally peerless. Unfortunately his balance and footwork are so out of kilter that even blocking Northern Districts' medium-pacers was a tortuous affair and he is playing like a man who has long forgotten what the middle of his bat feels like.

Lloyd, however, believes it will be only a matter of time before Atherton breaks out of the straitjacket of poor form that has blighted his game since the summer. "We went and worked on the bowling machine straight afterwards," said Lloyd, who also praised the captain's tireless net-work and dedication in trying to find a way out of the slump.

"In his last eight Tests, he's averaging 35. That's not bad and we've got to keep reminding him how good a player he is. I feel he'll come out of it and when he does he's going to take someone to the cleaners because they'll not get him out," Lloyd said

It is difficult to disagree, especially remembering Atherton's century against India at Trent Bridge in the summer, which was an innings built on scrapping, scraping and a form card only marginally better than the present one, which reads 208 runs from 15 innings in all cricket since the start of the Zimbabwe leg.

And yet for all the criticism that has been levelled at him - not all of it unwarranted - he steadfastly refuses to be consumed by failure as others have been, and for that he deserves admiration. In any case his dismissal here, leg before to one that nipped back sharply from outside off stump, had just enough of a hint of inside edge about it to make it seem a dubious decision. Atherton's reaction to the injustice was not to roar his displeasure, however. Instead he turned a wry grin in the umpire's direction.

Personal crisis or not, England's captain can at least be grateful for the re-appearance of Dominic Cork, who was sorely missed in Zimbabwe and is now transforming England's inconsistent bowling attack into a unit that at last looks capable of bowling sides out before the cows come home.

Cork is a class operator and whilst he may have shared the spoils equally with Craig White and Darren Gough, it was his riveting opening spell of outswing that did the real damage, by swiftly removing the New Zealand Test opening pair of Bryan Young and Blair Pocock.

They were the only two batsmen of any renown playing, so it would be premature to write New Zealand off on the basis of a display against a second-rate batting side on a fruity pitch. The bowlers will find the conditions at Auckland a lot less amenable, and the latest word is that surface is so unhelpful to the pacemen that the home side will play both their spinners; which means Dipak Patel's off-breaks and slow left-arm of Mark Haslam.

If the pitch is flat, England may well follow suit by playing both Robert Croft and Phil Tufnell. If it is green and grassy, as it was last time England toured here, Cork, White and Alan Mullally should play, with Gough - who bowled too short yesterday and did not really deserve his three wickets - making way for Chris Silverwood on the basis that Gough is not the ideal bowler on pitches where persistence and accuracy bring better reward than exuberance and experimentation.

Whichever combination is used next week, Lloyd insists that White will be a pivotal figure, which is strange considering he was not originally selected for the tour. The inconsistency aside, however, he is taking wickets and taking them quickly in short bursts. Which is how he does it for Yorkshire and how he did it here, aided by some slick catching from Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe, the latter at first slip.

The batting, bar Atherton, will remain as it did in Zimbabwe, with Stewart and John Crawley still the men in form. In contrast to his captain, Stewart looks to have recaptured the kind of touch last seen during his two hundreds in Barbados three years ago. He is brimming with confidence and on a pitch where others played as if on hot coals, he was sure of both foot and timing, succumbing only when he toed a long-hop off Alex Tait to Dion Bennett at wide mid-on.

With Nick Knight getting a good one soon afterwards and Nasser Hussain being undone by some delicious guile and turn from the 17-year-old left- arm spinner David Vettori, Thorpe was left to find his way back from the wilderness - a place only his captain now still roams.


First day: England won toss

Northern Districts - First Innings

B A Young b Cork 4

*B A Pocock c Stewart b Cork 0

M D Bell b Mullally 5

M D Bailey c Thorpe b Cork 4

M E Parlane c Stewart b White 9

M N Hart c Thorpe b White 2

+R G Hart c Thorpe b Gough 24

A R Tait b Gough 0

S B Styris c Stewart b Gough 0

D L Vettori c Stewart b White 5

D R Bennett not out 4

Extras (lb5 nb7) 12

Total (28.4 overs) 69

Fall: 1-4 2-5 3-13 4-17 5-32 6-53 7-54 8-54 9-65

Bowling: Cork 9-2-18-3, Mullally 7-4-6-1, White 7-1-17-3, Gough 5.4-1- 23-3

England - First Innings

N V Knight c R G Hart b Styris 39

*M A Atherton lbw b Styris 5

+A J Stewart c Bennett b Tait 40

N Hussain c Young b Vettori 7

G P Thorpe not out 39

J P Crawley not out 25

Extras (lb3 nb8) 11

Total (for 4, 59 overs) 166

Fall: 1-12 2-89 3-93 4-116

To Bat: C White, R D B Croft, D G Cork, D Gough, A D Mullally.

Bowling: Styris 17-4-60-2, Bennett 7-0-21-0, Tait 21-7-54-1, Vettori 11-5-16-1, M Hart 3-0-12-0.

Umpires: D V Cowie and C E King