Cricket: Croft spins in to spare Atherton

THIRD TEST FIRST DAY: New Zealand 229-5 v England
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The Independent Online
Robert Croft is a spin bowler who defies logic, or at least the kind found in most county changing-rooms around England. He also takes wickets, which is a useful habit, especially when your captain has inserted a side on a grassy pitch in the firm belief that his pace bowlers will have put him in an unassailable position by tea.

With his chirp, spin and aggression, the 26-year-old Croft has been England's find of the winter, an assessment supported by the assistant bowling coach, John Emburey, who now reckons the Glamorgan player on tour is a far better version of the one he knew in England.

"He adjusts to the pace of the wicket so quickly," Emburey said. "He's a damn good bowler who's improving all the time."

Quite simply, where others failed to make a mark, Croft - as he did when England most needed it in the second Test in Wellington - stamped his now indelible authority by taking the prime wickets of Pocock, Astle and Fleming, as England clawed their way back into the game after a disconcerting morning session had threatened to expose Mike Atherton's contentious decision to field.

Asking the opposition to bat first in Tests matches is always a risky proposal. So far Atherton has done it on five occasions, winning once, drawing three times and losing the other. It is a poor win-rate considering the high-risk element involved: namely that if your opponents get a big score, you are inevitably going to have to bat last on a pitch that is both worn and unpredictable.

If it was logic then it flew in the face of local advice, which, like that in Johannesburg last winter (where Atherton's decision to insert was absolved only by one of the great Test innings), regards what is above your head as more important than what is below your feet. As that was blue sky, the consensus outside the England dressing-room was to bat, despite the verdancy of the playing surface.

What undoubtedly complicated Atherton's decision, however, was New Zealand's late inclusion of Heath Davis, a seam bowler brought in to replace a veteran spinner, Dipak Patel. With the Kiwis needing to win, Atherton may have bowled simply in order to prevent the home side's pace-oriented attack from having first use of a juicy looking track. When Bob Willis tried this ploy in Adelaide during the 1982-83 Ashes series it badly backfired when Australia won comfortably by an innings.

Atherton would probably argue that bowling first has proved to be the right thing in every match so far played on this leg of the tour and that New Zealand pitches, which tend to start damp, are at their best for batting on days two and three.

It is a theory that is borne out historically and on the 35 occasions a team have been asked to bat first in Tests on New Zealand soil, losses outnumber wins 18 to seven.

Had the England captain not become so infected with the insistence of his coach, David Lloyd, on dealing solely with positives, he might also have pointed out that England again wasted the new ball, with Dominic Cork in particular looking as if he was searching for wickets through style rather than content.

The official line is that he is struggling for rhythm, which may be true. But even though he managed to pick up Bryan Young, bowled through the gate to one of the horrible shots of the series, his mind seems to be on another cloud to the long, white one over here.

Young's dismissal did give England an early chance to pressurise the debutant Matthew Horne, who, after getting off the mark with an edged four over second slip, looked as if he had both the technique and temperament to prosper at this level.

Unfortunately Horne's chance to consolidate his place will probably have to come later rather than sooner, as he suffered a fractured left wrist during his otherwise competent innings of 42. It was an injury caused by Darren Gough, the man who eventually got him out, caught by Graham Thorpe as he edged a lifter to first slip.

It was one of several injury problems endured by New Zealand, who began the day without their captain, Lee Germon, after he had failed a fitness test on an injured groin.

As the team's wicket-keeper, as well as their leader, it took two men to replace him, with Stephen Fleming taking over as acting captain and a reprieved Adam Parore taking the gloves. It was a combination that deceived to flatter, and, according to many, Germon is only in the side for his PR and not his repertoire.

Fleming's promotion at the tender age of 23 over that of Blair Pocock - the only man in the side to have had first-class experience of captaincy - was a bold move. It was not so long ago that Fleming was carpeted, along with two of his team-mates, for smoking cannabis during a tour to South Africa.

They say, however, that power can change a man, and after the reckless manner in which he gave up his wicket in Wellington, the tall left-hander was a model of concentration and calm.

When he is set, he can look as classy as any left-hander bar Brian Lara, and he twice left extra cover gawping in admiration as sumptuous drives off Phil Tufnell and Gough flashed by. There are still flaws and just when it looked as if he had played his captain's role almost to perfection, a rash attempt to dominate Croft saw him efficiently stumped by Alec Stewart for 62.

It was a close decision which the umpire Daryll Hair gave out without recourse to the third umpire, an arrogant act since the technology is there to be used. Hair has done this before and, a few years ago, this unshakeable belief in his own judgement once cost England a couple of crucial run-outs in Sydney.

(First day; England won toss) LANCASTER PARK SCOREBOARD NEW ZEALAND - First innings

B A Young b Cork 11

(9 min, 11 balls, 2 fours)

B A Pocock c Atherton b Croft 22

(96 min, 65 balls, 1 four)

M J Horne c Thorpe b Gough 42

(154 min, 124 balls, 4 fours)

*S P Fleming st Stewart b Croft 62

(219 min, 167 balls, 6 fours)

N J Astle c Hussain b Croft 15

(36 min, 23 balls, 1 four)

A C Parore not out 38

(162 min, 131 balls, 1 four, 1 six)

C L Cairns not out 10

(48 min, 36 balls, 1 four)

Extras (b1,lb13,nb15) 29

Total (for 5, 365min, 90overs) 229

Fall: 1-14 (Young), 2-78 (Pocock), 3-106 (Horne), 4-137 (Astle), 5-201 (Fleming).

To bat: S B Doull, H T Davis, G I Allott, D L Vettori.

Bowling: Cork 15-3-67-1 (nb12) (6-1-33-1, 6-2-20-0, 3-0-14-0); Caddick 18-4-33-0 (nb1) (5-2-5-0, 5-2-8-0, 3-0-8-0, 2-0-5-0, 3-0-7-0); Gough 16- 3-44-1 (nb3) (3-0-13-0, 10-3-19-1, 3-0-12-0); Croft 24-4-49-3 (nb1) (6- 1-12-1, 8-1-18-1, 3-1-9-0, 7-1-10-1); Tufnell 16-6-22-0 (10-4-14-0, 6- 2-8-0); Thorpe 1-1-0-0.

Progress: 50: 56 min, 12.2 overs. Lunch: 85 for 2 (Horne 31, Fleming 2) 28 overs. 100: 147 min, 34.2 overs. 150: 226 min, 53.1 overs. Tea 160 for 4 (Fleming 38, Parore 9) 57 overs. 200: 314 min, 77.2 overs. New ball taken after 84 overs at 207 for 5.

Fleming 50: 163 min, 127 balls, 6 fours.

ENGLAND: N V Knight, *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, D G Cork, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell.

Umpires: D B Hair and R S Dunne. TV replay umpire: D M Quested. Match referee: P J P Burge.

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