Cricket: Atherton's century sets the standard

FIFTH DAY THIRD TEST: Dismissals of Hussain and Thorpe put New Zealand back in contention after Astle ends England skipper's vigil
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New Zealand 346 & 186 England 228 & 231-6

It is never easy going out to bat knowing that the a whole winter will be judged on the outcome of a single day. But if the daunting nature of the challenge might have forced other men to capitulate, Michael Atherton simply went out today and scored the deserving century that eluded him in the first innings.

Inevitably, it was his concentartion that let him down in the end rather than the opposition's skill penetrating his defences. He had been on the field of play for nigh on 30 hours and his overall contribution of 212 runs under such pressure had been extraordinary.

Not since Graham Gooch's monolithic century against the West Indies at Headingley has a captain's example been so momentous as England pressed for the victory history deemed improbable.

It was Atherton's 11th Test century and it came off 264 balls as England chased the 305 needed for a historic victory at Lancaster Park. He was particularly fluent against the second new ball, which New Zealand took after the 89th over. Judging by the momentum it gave England it was obviously a decision the Kiwis instantly regretted and Daniel Vettori was back on after five overs.

One of the problems the faster bowlers faced was the deepening footholes and in the first over after lunch, Heath Davis was forced to pull up three times, as his front foot landed awkardly.

Such impediments can lodge themselves firmly in the back of the mind and when he did finally let the ball go, it was a straight half-volley which Atherton gratefully despatched to the mid-wicket boundary.

With such an inexperienced bowling attack - Davis, Allott and Vettori have eight Test caps between them - to work with, Fleming was forced to adopt the defensive wait and see tactics he'd used so successfully against Alec Stewart the previous evening.

But while the ploy worked aginst Hussain, Atherton had played himself into such fine touch that anything wayward was neatly placed into the areas Fleming had left unfilled.

He needed allies, however, and the arrival of Gooch's Essex team-mate Nasser Hussain, who began in confident mood, appeared to ease the pressure. Under the tutelage of both Gooch and Keith Fletcher at Essex, Hussain would have been involved in more pressurised run-chases than most, and he was quick to work out where his best scoring opportunities lay. That was until he tried to pad away a viciously bouncing delivery from Vettori out of the rough. The ball going to Fleming at silly point off knee and then glove.

Moments later Vettori had struck again, cleverly drawing Graham Thorpe into giving him a tame return catch. It left England on 231 for 6 and in iurgent need of consolidation.

At the start of the day, Ladbroke's had made England 4-7 favourites. But while that confidence is based on hard facts like the state of the pitch, imponderables like pressure tend to conquer more in cricket than unplayable deliveries or brilliant strokes.

There was early controversy, too, when Caddick, in the fourth over of the day, trapped a ball off Vettori between his bat and pad. As it was released, Stephen Fleming, sensing an opportunity, dived in from silly point and caught it as it bounced off the batsman's boot.

As it had not lodged in either his clothing or the top of his pad, Caddick, who had yet to score, was technically out, although Fleming's brilliant bit of opportunism went unrewarded when umpire Daryll Hair kept his finger down. With the close catcher tumbling in front of the batsman, it was an impossible decision to give and made Adam Parore's ludicrous dance of the dervishes an unwarranted piece of intimidation.

Sensing that he was on borrowed time, Caddick decided to play some shots and he promptly mowed Vettori high over the square leg boundary for six. In the circumstances, it was probably the correct thing to do; it sometimes pays for someone to come and take the bowling by the scruff of the neck.

However another sweetly timed drive, this time off Simon Doull, resulted in a brilliant catch by Fleming, at short mid-wicket.

England won toss

NEW ZEALAND - First Innings 346 (S P Fleming 62, A C Parore 59, C L Cairns 57; R D B Croft 5-95).

ENGLAND - First Innings 228 (M A Atherton 94no).

NEW ZEALAND - Second innings 186 (C L Cairns 52)

ENGLAND - Second innings

(Overnight: 118 for 2)

*M A Atherton c Parore b Astle 118

A R Caddick c Fleming b Doull 15

N Hussain c Fleming b Vettorit 33

G P Thorpe c and b Vettori 2

J P Crawley not out 3

D G Cork not out 0

Extras (b2 lb8 w1 nb3) 14

Total (for 6, 108 overs) 231

Fall: 1-64 (Knight) 2-116 (Stewart) 3-146 (Caddick) 4-226 (Atherton) 5-226 (Hussain) 6-231 (Thorpe).

Umpires: R S Dunne and D B Hair (Aus).