Cricket: Captain's sterling stand is riposte to Rixon

FOURTH DAY THIRD TEST
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New Zealand 346 & 186 England 228 & 118-2

There are few people who have the mental and physical stamina to endure more than four whole days on a cricket field. One who has is the England captain, Michael Atherton. Having taken the contentious decision to put New Zealand in to bat, he has dared not spend his time anywhere else.

In Tests, Atherton is a highly motivated man. Nothing, however, gets his blood flowing more than the goading words of an opponent, and comments from Steve Rixon, the New Zealand coach, on Sunday evening that England "haven't coped well with pressure in the past and I can't see why it would start now" would have steeled him beyond compare.

His mood and body language in Christchurch, as well as the way he has chosen his shots, have already been likened to his manner in Johannesburg, where he played one of the great innings to save the second Test against South Africa.

"He has this incredible inner strength," said Bob Bennett, the Lancashire chairman and someone who has seen Atherton develop from an outstanding Manchester schoolboy into a hardened Test opener.

Bennett, who also chairs the new England management committee, is one of Atherton's greatest supporters and he praised the way Atherton refused to let his abysmal form in Zimbabwe get him down.

"I spoke with him often when things were going poorly. Underneath I'm sure he was concerned but he hadn't become depressed about it. He kept assuring me that he was fine, and that things would come right."

Curiously, the upturn in Atherton's batting form appeared to come after an extensive work-out against a bowling machine in Hamilton. The machine has a reliable repetitiveness that allowed him to groove the faulty footwork which was at the heart of his problems.

Such devotion is rare, even in a troubled man, and it has probably made his team-mates even more devoted to him than they were previously. Atherton may be a reticent, unshaven and unsmiling salesman of the game, but on the factory floor, when the furnace door blows open, there is no one who takes the heat better.

It would be a considerable shock if he did not lead England's fight to regain the Ashes this summer. But if he is captain, it promises to be a tough summer, and in addition to the pressures on the pitch, there will be the added strain of running his benefit year. Bennett, though, does not think the burden will weigh heavily, saying: "He is not a mercenary. According to his father, quality of life to Michael is the book he is currently reading. That's very refreshing in a materialistic world."

On the field, he is often prone to being over-defensive, and although he carried his bat in the first innings, and was just as admirably obstinate as the second got under way - taking just under three hours to score his second half-century of the match - again he allowed the New Zealand tail to add crucial runs.

When the New Zealand team was announced, John Emburey had felt the line- up contained four No 11 batsman. If it did, then England's bowlers must have been off the boil, for those last four wickets contributed 160 precious runs over two innings; a sizeable chunk of the 305 that England were finally set.

Not for the first time was the England captain guilty of sitting back and waiting for the his opponents to self-destruct. At 80 for 5 New Zealand were floundering, and with only Chris Cairns and an injured Mat Horne of the recognised batsmen to cause the damage, Atherton should have been more aggressive in trying to remove them.

Horne, brave as he was with his broken top hand, did not last long, and it was left to Cairns, who scored his second half-century of the match, to marshal the tail cleverly. It was a fine innings, although he was twice missed, once by Alec Stewart on 31 and again by Dominic Cork just after he had reached his 50. Despite the miss, Stewart still finished the series with 16 dismissals, a record for a three-match series against New Zealand.

Until this game, Stewart's combined keeping and batting had been a revelation. He had even managed to score at least 50 in each of his nine Tests, although that run came to an end here when Daniel Vettori had him caught by short leg for 17 - an innings that had taken an incredible 117 balls and contained just nine scoring shots. It was one of Stewart's most curious innings, and the Surrey captain probably sacrificed his natural free-flowing style in order to keep his wicket intact until the close, when England could reassess their position.

In the end it did not work, and New Zealand have to be given credit for shrewdly keeping pace off the ball by bowling Vettori and Nathan Astle in tandem.

The 18-year-old Vettori bowled immaculately, patiently probing the rough from over the wicket. His forays into the bowler's footholes constituted about the only danger from New Zealand. But what a danger. Once Nick Knight had given up his wicket by trying to hit the spinner over mid-on, both Stewart and Atherton endured some tricky moments.

One delivery in particular caught Stewart clean between the eyes, cutting the batsman's forehead. Having survived that, Stewart fell victim to only the second ball he had received from around the wicket, the change of angle cramping him as he tried to clip the ball to leg.

Fourth-day scoreboard

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

B A Pocock b Cork 0

(3 min, 4 balls)

B A Young c Knight b Tufnell 49

(166 min, 135 balls, 5 fours)

A C Parore c Stewart b Gough 8

(83 min, 55 balls)

*S P Fleming c Knight b Tufnell 11

(31 min, 34 balls, 1 four)

N J Astle c Hussain b Croft 5

(36 min, 36 balls, 1 four)

C L Cairns c Knight b Tufnell 52

(133 min, 106 balls, 4 fours, 1 six)

S B Doull c Knight b Croft 5

(22 min, 19 balls, 1 four)

M J Horne c Stewart b Caddick 13

(28 min, 32 balls, 1 four)

D L Vettori not out 29

(103 min, 78 balls, 5 fours)

H T Davis b Gough 1

(22 min, 25 balls)

G I Allott c Stewart b Gough 1

(7 min, 12 balls)

Extras (lb8 nb4) 12

Total (323 min, 88.3 overs) 186

Fall: 1-0 (Pocock) 2-42 (Parore) 3-61 (Fleming) 4-76 (Astle) 5-80 (Young) 6-89 (Doull) 7-107 (Horne) 8-178 (Cairns) 9-184 (Davis) 10-186 (Allott).

Bowling: Cork 6-2-5-1 (one spell); Caddick 10-1-25-1 (nb2) (7-1-17-0, 3-0-8-1); Croft 31-13-48-2 (4-1-6-0, 16-9-19-2, 7-1-21-0, 4-2-2-0); Gough 13.3-5-42-3 (5-2-19-1, 8.3-3-23-2); Tufnell 28-9-58-3 (nb3) (26-9-52-2, 2-0-6-1).

Progress: Fourth day: 100: 210 min, 57.4 overs. 150: 272 min, 74.3 overs. Innings closed: 12.26pm - lunch taken.

ENGLAND - Second innings

N V Knight c Davis b Vettori 29

(108 min, 80 balls, 2 fours)

*M A Atherton not out 65

(241 min, 175 balls, 7 fours)

A J Stewart c Pocock b Vettori 17

(115 min, 108 balls, 1 four)

A R Caddick not out 0

(15 min, 16 balls)

Extras (b1 lb4 w1 nb1) 7

Total (for 2, 241 min, 63 overs) 118

Fall: 1-64 (Knight) 2-116 (Stewart).

Bowling: Allott 5-2-4-0 (w1) (one spell); Davis 6-2-22-0 (2-0-11-0, 4- 2-11-0); Doull 13-6-26-0 (8-4-20-0, 5-2-6-0); Vettori 23-5-33-2; Cairns 4-0-12-0; Astle 12-7-16-0 (one spell each).

Progress: 50: 89 min, 19.3 overs. Tea: 71-1 (Atherton 35, Stewart 1) 29 overs. 100: 188 min, 50 overs.

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

TV Replay Umpire: D M Quested.

Match Referee: P J P Burge.

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