Cricket: Atherton back in the old routine

Third Test: Captain forced to stand alone in familiar fashion as the top-order collapse returns to haunt England
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Confidence in sport is a fickle business. Like a temperamental dog it can snarl at and oppress you one minute, and just as quickly leave you laughing by turning to bite itself on the tail the next. This probably explains why Michael Atherton is so spectacularly guarded in his public pronouncements even when England win, which is not very often.

In a way, England have been victims of their own success last week here, for if there is one side in world cricket guaranteed to feast on the over- confidence of their opponents it is New Zealand. Unfortunately, they are also about the only side that England are likely to be over- confident against, and the top order duly collapsed long before the follow- on target had been passed.

At times it looked as if five of the top six were using their time at the crease as a dress rehearsal for next week's one-day internationals instead of a Test. But while those out should be considering treatment to curb their reckless aggression, the England captain was back in his element, battling the crisis with tight-lipped determination and a minimum of fuss.

On occasions like this, he is as gritty as a Manchester chimney stack and almost as straight, his bad back forcing him to stand as tall as he can. It is the main reason why he prefers the short ball rather than the one that draws him forward, which was spotted by Zimbabwe, where his bad trot had its nadir, but not in New Zealand. He is not quite out of it even now, although David Lloyd, the England coach, felt that glimpses of the old Atherton were at least becoming more frequent than they had a month ago. Mind you, the captain probably feels he owes it to his side after putting the opposition in.

Amazingly, it is a tactic he has employed on four of the last six occasions he has won the toss. Being a history graduate has clearly given Atherton little regard for the past. If it had, he would have known that since Test cricket began, England have won just 10 out of the 55 Tests in which they have inserted the opposition. They have lost 22 times, while drawing the other 23.

There are no statistics which can help ease the present plight of Atherton's opening partner, Nick Knight. Once again the left-hander's failure meant that New Zealand's bowlers were allowed quick and easy access to England's middle-order.

As a left-handed opening batsman, Knight is failing one of the most basic requirements needed at this level: knowing where your off-stump is. At present he seems to think it is somewhere between leg-stump and the return crease on the off side, which means he plays at just about everything between those two points. Geoff Allott discovered this to his benefit when Knight slashed a ball he should have left alone to Stephen Fleming at first slip.

To his credit Allott gave his all throughout the day and although he lacked panache, he disconcerted Knight through his pace and aggression. It was, however, a combination that proved altogether too tempting for Alec Stewart, who is in such dominant form at the moment, that you feel failure can only come from within.

In a way it did. Stewart began like a man who had torched a carwash - although he possessed the means to dampen the flames, the overwhelming thrill of the moment was just too great for him to use them. Amazingly, his innings only lasted two overs, by which time he had completed the most seductive and sumptuous cameo since the languidly elegant days of David Gower.

His dismissal, however, caught low down in the gully, was every bit as Gower-like, as it was immediately preceded by successive boundaries either side of the wicket. In truth, he was probably duped by his own sublime touch, and instead of scything Allott's short ball over the top of gully as he would normally, he tried to get on top of it and keep it down.

Nasser Hussain, although sensing the need for caution, was next to go, after seeing a succession of rifling back foot shots stopped in the covers. In a way it was the tight fielding, which England have also preached and practised religiously, which probably led to his downfall, as he was caught behind by Adam Parore trying to force Chris Cairns away through the off-side. The same combination of players had earlier supplied New Zealand with two vital half-centuries.

With Lloyd's penchant for having statements rebound on him this winter, the dismissal of Graham Thorpe - who unluckily dragged a harmless- looking delivery from Nathan Astle on to his stumps - was a foregone conclusion.

Before this Test Lloyd had - in a moment of joviality during a press conference - stated that if Thorpe wasn't a better bowler than Nathan Astle, then his bottom [Lloyd's] was a fire engine. Fortunately for residents of Christchurch, it was a Lancastrian figure of speech, and the only fire that needed dousing was the one coming from Lloyd as he watched five of his top six capitulate.

The batsmen, however, were by no means the only players to receive the England coach's ire. "We batted sloppily and played some airy-fairy shots," he said at the press conference afterwards. "But although we stuck at it with the ball, the pace department was unspectacular." Which although not invoking images of sirens and water hoses, was a Lloyd euphemism for saying that the tail (the last three wickets added 50 runs) got far too many runs and England's pace bowlers couldn't frighten his granny. His criticism would not have included the worthy performance of Robert Croft, whose five for 95 represents only the second time a Glamorgan player has taken five or more wickets in a Test match. Jeff Jones, who played for England in the late Sixties was the other. Croft is also the first England spinner to take a five-wicket haul since Peter Such did it against the Australians in 1993.

With his sunblock daubed in bold blotches over his lips and nose, Croft could be a circus clown. He is certainly looks as cheery as one. But like the great mime artist Marcel Marceau, what you see is not necessarily what you always get, and Croft has so far artfully lured five people - four of them caught by Hussain at slip - to their doom on a grassy pitch.

Scoreboard from Christchurch

Second day: England won toss

New Zealand - First innings

A C Parore c Hussain b Croft 59

(216 min, 167 balls, 4 fours, 1 six; drove at wide delivery)

C L Cairns c Stewart b Caddick 57

(157 min, 126 balls, 4 fours, 1 six; edged lifting delivery to wicketkeeper)

S B Doull run out 1

(12 min, 5 balls; hesitated over sharp single to mid-on, direct hit by Tufnell)

D L Vettori run out 25

(72 min, 59 balls, 2 fours; fatal misunderstanding after misfield)

H T Davis c Hussain b Croft 8

(45 min, 31 balls; played inside the line, edge to first slip)

G I Allott not out 8

(13 min, 18 balls, 1 four; )

Extras (b1, lb16, nb19) 36

Total (521 min, 129.1 overs) 346

Fall: 1-14 (Young), 2-78 (Pocock), 3-106 (Horne), 4-137 (Astle), 5-201 (Fleming), 6-283 (Parore), 7-288 (Doull), 8-310 (Cairns), 9-337 (Vettori), 10-346 (Davis).

Bowling: Cork 20-3-78-1 (nb14) (6-1-33-1, 6-2-20-0, 3-0-14-0, 5-0-11- 0), Caddick 32-8-64-1 (nb2) (5-2-5-0, 5-2-8-0, 3-0-8-0, 2-0-5-0, 9-2-20- 0, 8-2-18-1), Gough 21-3-70-1 (nb4) (3-0-13-0, 10-3-19-1, 3-0-12-0, 4- 0-22-0, 1-0-4-0), Croft 39.1-5-95-5 (nb1) (6-1-12-1, 8-1-18-1, 3-1-9-0, 7-1-10-1, 15.1-1-46-2), Tufnell 16-6-22-0 (10-4-14-0, 6-2-8-0), Thorpe 1-1-0-0.

Progress: Second day: 250: 385 min, 95.1 overs. 300: 455 min, 111.5 overs. Lunch: 314-8 (Vettori 9, Davis 1) 119 overs. Innings closed: 1.47pm.

Parore 50: 183 min, 145 balls, 3 fours, 1 six. Cairns 50: 136 min, 107 balls, 4 fours, 1 six.

England - First Innings

N V Knight c Fleming b Allott 14

(27 min, 22 balls, 2 fours; flashed at wide delivery)

*M A Atherton not out 66

(205 min, 135 balls, 7 fours )

A J Stewart c sub (C Z Harris) b Allott 15

(13 min, 10 balls, 3 fours; guided attempted cut shot to gully)

N Hussain c Parore b Cairns 12

(45 min, 34 balls, 1 four; tried to force wide ball off back foot, edged to keeper)

G P Thorpe b Astle 18

(53 min, 49 balls, 3 fours; dragged wide delivery on to stumps)

J P Crawley c Parore b Allott 1

(5 min, 6 balls; edged attempted drive to wicketkeeper)

D G Cork not out 16

(54 min, 39 balls, 2 fours)

Extras (lb3) 3

Total (for 5, 205 min, 49 overs) 145

Fall: 1-20 (Knight), 2-40 (Stewart), 3-70 (Hussain), 4-103 (Thorpe), 5-104 (Crawley).

To bat: R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Allott 12-3-49-3 (nb1) (7-2-35-2 5-1-14-1), Doull 10-0-27-0 (6-0-15-0 4-0-12-0), Davis 12-0-36-0 (10-0-30-0 2-0-6-0), Vettori 4-1- 7-0 (1-0-5-0 3-1-2-0), Cairns 8-5-12-1, Astle 3-0-11-1 (one spell each).

Progress: 50: 58 min, 13 overs. Tea: 64-2 (Atherton 24, Hussain 11) 16 overs. 100: 137 min, 32.1 overs.

Atherton 50: 172 min, 107 balls, 6 fours.

Umpires: D B Hair; R S Dunne. TV Umpire: D M Quested. Match Referee: P J P Burge