Cricket: Atherton expects reward for his faith: England's captain warns that another 'unacceptable performance' will not be tolerated in today's third Test against New Zealand

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IT IS said to be not much fun to watch these days and even less so on television, all seven-foot giants firing the ball down from the clouds in a blur of speed and leaving the opponent with as much chance of making decent contact as picking out Mexico's goalkeeper in a rave club.

However, the Wimbledon men's final still takes precedence over Test cricket in the Beeb's great British sporting summer, so England and New Zealand are this Sunday able to enjoy that quaint, old custom from the unsponsored Dark Ages, the Test match rest day.

How long it will survive is a matter of doubt, the Test televising contract is up for renewal at the end of the summer and cricket administrators and supporters alike are still chuntering about the BBC's preference for Agassi's shaven legs against England's hairy moments as they escaped from the second Test at Lord's with an undeserved draw.

It had been feared that the third Test, which opens at Old Trafford today, would not even get as far as Sunday's day off (golf for batsmen, feet up for bowlers). That was until Lord's where New Zealand's recovery was so dramatic that the team manager, Geoff Howarth, must have been standing on the boundary with one of those World Cup stretchers waiting to cart any shirkers off to the knackers' yard.

Since it was heavily aided and abetted by England's ineptness, - Mike Atherton yesterday described his team's display as 'an unacceptable performance' - some serious surgery on the team might have been felt in order. In the event only Paul Taylor, who was virtually a non-combatant, is definitely missing from last week's XI, although Peter Such could be sent to face Warwickshire at Edgbaston today if Ian Salisbury is selected.

Salisbury, who was last seen watching the ball disappear towards the Maravel Hills in Port of Spain, has played six Tests; the other likely newcomer, Darren Gough, will be making his debut.

Having impressed on the A tour of South Africa and in the first Texaco one-day match, Gough would have played earlier were it not for a side strain. Though still inexperienced, his phlegmatic nature and big-occasion temperament should see him safely through a Test, especially as the pitch is expected to be pacy.

That is not necessarily the case with Robin Smith and Graeme Hick, both of whom seem to be perpetually playing for their places without ever banishing the doubts. Smith, Atherton said, 'is not guaranteed a place against South Africa, but if he does find his form he is the sort of player we will need. It is important for players to know you've got faith in them, I've got faith in Robin Smith'.

Atherton, who has yet to be told if his tenure as captain, which officially expires at the end of the Test, is to be extended (surely a formality) added: 'I believe in loyalty to players, all the chopping and changing in recent years has been detrimental to English cricket.

'It is important we play to the level of our performance at Trent Bridge (where England won by an innings and 90 runs). Then the results will follow.'

New Zealand, who must achieve only their third victory in 26 Tests since Sir Richard Hadlee retired if they are to square the series, could make two changes from their Lord's side. Mark Greatbatch is expected to come in for the opening bat, Blair Pocock, who is injured, and Gavin Larsen may be recalled to replace Michael Owens.

There are also changes among the officials. With Clive Lloyd entering hospital for an operation, Everton Weekes is the match referee, while Barry Lambson becomes the first South African to stand as an independent umpire in England.

When South Africa were cast into isolation 24 years ago their umpires, having given Bill Lawry's Australians a rough time, had a poor reputation. But Lambson is one of several officials who have proved to be excellent since their country's return, performing comfortably alongside umpires of the calibre of David Shepherd, who stands with Lambson, and Steve Bucknor.

Old Trafford report that, following New Zealand's revival at Lord's and the recent good weather, ticket sales 'have been going crazy' in the last two weeks. Three-quarter full crowds are expected and tickets will be available on the gate daily.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, G A Gooch, R A Smith, G A Hick, C White, S J Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, I D K Salisbury, D Gough, A R C Fraser, P M Such.

NEW ZEALAND (from): B A Young, M J Greatbatch, K R Rutherford (capt), M D Crowe, S P Fleming, S A Thomson, A C Parore (wkt), M N Hart, D J Nash, C Pringle, M B Owens, B R Hartland, G R Larsen.