Cricket: Affable Croft finds friend in umpire Bucknor

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New Zealand 124 & 125 for 4 England 383

Every sport is founded on relationships of one kind or another, writes Derek Pringle. On a cricket field, none is probably more important than the shifting uncertainty of the mind game between bowler and umpire.

It is an inexact science, and yet with just 20 minutes of the fallow, rain-affected fourth day to go, Robert Croft took three wickets in 17 balls, two of them lbw as he somehow persuaded the umpire Steve Bucknor to find in his favour. If psychology degrees were handed out for work in the field, then Croft deserves the highest honour there is.

The wickets were crucial towards keeping England in the hunt after persistent drizzle had frustrated Michael Atherton's men by washing out the first half of the day.

Where leg-before is concerned, interpretation is everything and getting to know your umpire is the key to getting favourable decisions. In that sense Croft is a shrewd operator, and he is always ready with a knowing smile and an urchin's glint in his eye.

The manner of his appeals is also important and he somehow combines - probably quite unintentionally - both comedy and aggression every time he gets down on bended knee to beseech the man who matters. Whatever his secret, and he often resembles a hammy repertory actor playing Hamlet when he appeals, he manages to endear himself to just about everyone, on or off the field: a characteristic one or two of his team-mates might do well to take note of.

It was much the same with Essex and England's John Lever and the former Somerset player turned umpire Bill Alley. Lever was a fine left-arm swing bowler who was a popular fellow generally and a clear favourite of Bill's. None the less, on some occasions even he appeared to be nonplussed at Bill's magnanimity when the ball was swinging. Once, over two games during Essex's Ilford week, Alley gave him 17 lbws. On another occasion, when Essex played Warwickshire, he told Lever after turning down a reasonably close inquiry: "Hit him again son and he's gone."

Mostly, though, there are no narrow rules when it comes to winning over umpires, and often, those who are won over once, might not - even when identical circumstances prevail - be persuaded a second time. And while there was absolutely nothing remiss or untoward in the lbws Bucknor gave - neither Adam Parore or Dipak Patel were playing a shot - another umpire may just as easily ruled in their favour and given them not out.

It is not that Bucknor - who has generally had an excellent match, especially in terms of controlling the occasional moments of agitation - was showing favouritism, either. It is just that Croft has somehow made Bucknor far better disposed towards his appeals than he is to, say, Dominic Cork's preposterously choreographed squawks.

Subliminal kinship or not, there can be no doubt that Croft fully deserved his success, particularly after being overlooked in Auckland, where with only one spinner selected, Phil Tufnell was preferred.

He only came on here after Tufnell had slackened. Even though it had been Tufnell who had made the initial breakthrough with the wicket of Bryan Young, it was only when Croft appeared that England really looked as if they could start to demolish the Kiwis' stonewall.

Spinning the ball as hard as he did in Zimbabwe, and with men perched around the bat, Croft caused the New Zealand batsman great unease. Pressure can be built in many ways, but none is more reassuring to a spinner than stemming a batsman's runs.

In a way, by not trying to score, New Zealand - who made 125 in 70 overs - played directly into the Welshman's hands. "We bowlers got a great boost out of the way the team fielded," he said. "That helped to build a period of pressure which made them just give way at the end."

It was an assessment with which the home side's Australian coach, Steve Rixon, concurred. "We got carried away with not scoring runs, which let the spinners dictate."

Mind you, it is doubtful that even he could have brought himself to see the positive aspects of Stephen Fleming's brainless dismissal. With 12 minutes to bat until stumps, Fleming holed out, caught and bowled, as he tried to smear Croft against the spin.

Until Croft's timely burst, New Zealand could rightly have claimed to have shaded the last couple of days, despite the unsettling allegations that some of their players had been involved in ball tampering and late- night drinking. With the former misdemeanour being about as interesting as a limited-overs statistic, the latter, though not a great deal more heinous, was used to fit all manner of on-field performances. The only problem was that most of those purported to be involved actually performed rather well.

New Zealand won toss

NEW ZEALAND - First innings 124 (D Gough 5-40, A R Caddick 4-45).

ENGLAND - First innings 383 (G P Thorpe 108, N Hussain 64, J P Crawley 56; S B Doull 5-75).

NEW ZEALAND - Second innings

(Overnight: 48 for 0)

B A Pocock not out 45

(278 min, 223 balls, 3 fours)

B A Young c Stewart b Tufnell 56

(132 min, 103 balls, 6 fours)

A C Parore lbw b Croft 15

(116 min, 94 balls)

S P Fleming c and b Croft 0

(9 min, 11 balls)

D N Patel lbw b Croft 0

(4 min, 2 balls)

*L K Germon not out 0

(9 min, 10 balls)

Extras (b1, lb4, nb4) 9

Total (for 4, 278 min, 73 overs) 125

Fall: 1-89 (Young), 2-125 (Parore), 3-125 (Fleming), 4-125 (Patel).

Bowling: Cork 8-1-34-0 (nb1) (4-1-20-0, 4-0-14-0); Caddick 16-7-25-0 (6-3-7-0, 5-1-15-0, 5-3-3-0); Croft 16-8-12-3 (nb1) (5-1-6-0, 11-7-6-3); Gough 14-7-31-0 (4-2-11-0, 8-4-16-0, 2-1-4-0); Tufnell 19-8-18-1 (nb3) (2-1-3-0, 10-3-11-1, 4-1-4-0, 3-3-0-0).

Progress: Rain delayed start until 3.13pm. 50: 80 min, 21.2 overs. 100: 165 min, 43.1 overs.

Young 50: 116 min, 85 balls, 5 fours.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and D B Cowie.