Cricket: Atherton finding his form

England 334 & 230-5 dec Matabeleland 188 & 5-0
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Since taking over as England captain, Michael Atherton has probably lost count of the amount of different painkillers he has had to take for his bothersome back.

If he has not, then he would know that they outnumber, by some distance, the times England have been allowed the luxury of setting their opponents a target, which, thanks to a bright half-century from the captain himself, and a more primeval effort from Graham Thorpe, England were able to do by asking Matabeleland to score 377 to win. A target - even with England's history of upsets - that ought to be well beyond what is probably the weakest first-class batting line-up in the world.

Atherton, never one to fret unduly over his own form, could have pursued victory earlier by declaring sooner. As it was, he opted to let Thorpe and Nasser Hussain have lengthy stays at the crease. Much needed in Thorpe's case who, after a scrappy start to last year's tour of South Africa, seems slowly to be finding his touch: a fact his tally of nine boundaries, one a mowed six over midwicket, appears to indicate.

However, it is the skipper's form that will probably decide whether or not the batting jigsaw will fit together in time. When he scores runs, England usually post competitive totals. When he fails, they invariably chase the game, rarely catching anything but a beating.

Judging Atherton's form is never easy, particularly in non-internationals. Like his painkillers (which he has to change regularly) the England captain has also clearly built up a tolerance to adrenalin, the levels of which now needed to "turn him on" being rarely available outside the Test and one-day arena.

Yesterday you could sense that facing a Matabeleland attack containing barely two useful bowlers - Heath Streak, the Zimbabwe opening bowler, was apparently resting and, although he fielded, he did not bowl - only half stirred his juices. In truth, it probably needed the early dismissal of Nick Knight, lbw to Henry Olonga, to encourage a more diligent approach.

With his feet moving well, courtesy of a looser pain-free back, his shot selection was spot on, and he struck the ball with the crisp efficiency of a confident man. "Real Atherton shots," said David Lloyd, England's coach, who must also have been pleased at the fluency of Hussain's 40.

When Atherton reached his fifty, any lingering caution was instantly disposed of, and the horrible crabbed shot that brought his demise, as he tried to drag the left-arm spinner Vaghmaria over midwicket, would never have seen the light of day had his score been destined for the Test match and not the first-class section of Wisden.

He is a man who rarely doubts his knowledge of self, and then only as captain. As a batsman, he usually knows after a five-minute net if he is either in or out of nick. Officially, of course, he has been having a poor run of scores. Yet he maintains that he feels in control and that only the soreness and stiffness in his back has been a limiting factor. A problem has currently been solved by two cortisone injections into the hot spots in his lower spine. A "cure" that cannot be readministered too often for fear of joint damage.

With Darren Gough claiming his sixth wicket in the morning - though neither he nor Andy Caddick were able to strike as effectively as the thunderstorm which halted play soon after the home side began their second innings - England appear to be timing their international campaign with military precision. "We've got used to the conditions now," Lloyd said. "In fact we are exactly as we thought we would be at this stage." A position every England supporter hopes will travel well to the new stage at Queen's Park, five minutes down the road, where the serious stuff starts in a few days' time.

Gatting's ambition, page 29,

How Lord's put the fab in

pre-fab, Tabloid, page 5

Bulawayo scoreboard

Third day of four; Matabeleland won toss

ENGLAND - Second Innings

N V Knight lbw b Olonga 8

*M A Atherton c G Whittall b Vaghmaria 55

A J Stewart c G Whittall b Vaghmaria 43

N Hussain c James b A R Whittall 40

G P Thorpe c G Whittall b Vaghmaria 65

R C Irani not out 10

Extras (b5, w1, nb3) 9

Total (for 5 dec, 67.3 overs) 230

Fall: 1-10, 2-88, 3-121, 4-196, 5-230.

Did not bat: J P Crawley, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Olonga 11-3-41-1; Mbangwa 11-2-35-0; Rennie 10-2-32-0; G J Whittall 3-0-17-0; Vaghmaria 16.3-3-58-3; A R Whittall 16-3-42-1.

MATABELELAND - Second Innings

G J Whittall not out 4

M H Dekker not out 1

Extras 0

Total (for 0, 4.2 overs) 5

To bat: M Ranchod, D Vaghmaria, W R James, M D Abrams, *J A Rennie, H H Streak, H K Olonga, A R Whittall, M Mbangwa.

Bowling (to date): Gough 2.2-1-4-0; Caddick 2-1-1-0.

Umpires: R Tiffin and C Coventry.