Cricket: England can adapt to `result' pitch

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The Independent Online
England can expect no favours from the Lancaster Park groundsman as New Zealand attempt to salvage a draw from this three-match series. To do that they need to win the final Test, which starts tomorrow (tonight British time). If rumours of a fast, grassy track turn out to be true - and the inclusion of Heath Davis in the squad suggests they will - Valentine's Day may not come much bloodier

New Zealanders do not much like losing. Unfortunately, with a cricket team as indisciplined as theirs, most other options are pie in the sky unless a reckless gamble comes off on an underprepared pitch.

It is a ploy they tried the last time England toured, after they had gone one down in the first Test. On that occasion, it was the Auckland pitch that was prepared with salad tossers rather than a lawnmower, a risk that ultimately backfired when Graham Gooch managed to score a hundred in the second innings and set up England for victory.

Cricket pitches are probably the most scrutinised pieces of turf on the planet. Even on a good day, when they look flat and even, they attract attention, and unless pampered regularly can prove unpredictable, though the pitch here is usually one of the best to bat on in New Zealand.

According to the England coach, David Lloyd, a deliberately prepared result pitch is the only factor, other than injury, that is likely to prevent England from playing an unchanged side for the first time in 32 Tests - the last occasion being the Barbados and Antigua matches against the West Indies, early in 1994.

That is a terrible slight upon Atherton's purported desire for continuity, as well as being an indicator of how fickle the England selectors are when under pressure from poor results. At the moment, that is not the case, and the most heartening thing about England's comprehensive victory in Wellington is that it was achieved with two key players - Dominic Cork and Nick Knight - way below their best. Of most significance, however, was the way in which England's fielding has improved, particularly their slip catching, with Knight outstanding at second slip.

These improvements have made England's cricket appear more intense, an assessment with which Lloyd heartily concurs. "A lot of our aggression comes from behind the wicket," he said after England had arrived in Christchurch. "It gives tremendous confidence to the bowlers, as well as intimidating the opposition, who know if they're going to edge it, we're going to get hold of it."

The balance of the bowling attack, with two spinners, is another pleasing factor of England's success. It would not be possible without Stewart filling the all-round role - of keeping wicket and batting at No 3 - with such aplomb. His form in both areas has been outstanding, and he is on the brink of breaking Bob Taylor's wicket-keeping record of 13 dismissals in a series against New Zealand.

Stewart is also on the brink of equalling John Edrich's record of 10 scores of 50 or more in successive Tests. Vivian Richards may be the overall leader with 12, but Stewart's record of scoring at least 50 in every Test since his return last summer is a stupendous effort considering he has been wearing the gloves as well.

It is the kind of consistency Lee Germon and Steve Rixon would give up their monogrammed shell suits for and, so far, only the adhesive Blair Pocock has shown the necessary commitment and concentration required to score runs at this level.

With that in mind, they have brought in Matthew Horne - one of the batting successes for New Zealand A at Wanganui - to bolster the middle order. Horne replaces Adam Parore, one of several descending stars (Chris Cairns is another) and one who, having been banned from playing for his regional first-class team, has the unenviable task of trying to catch the selectors' eye without a platform from which to do it.

Circumstances dictate that this will be a fascinating, if foreshortened, Test match. Unfortunately, spectator interest, apart from the many package tours from the UK, is likely to be low.

It was exactly the same situation here five years ago, when England won thanks to an amazing six-wicket burst by Phil Tufnell on the final day. On that occasion, England, always keen to practise, turned up on the first morning of the match at 8.30. When they got there, not only did they find the gates shut, but no one there to open them.

In the end, it was left to the captain, Graham Gooch, to scale them and go to summon the groundsman, who begrudgingly opened up. Unless the locals have become more philosophical about losing, England may not be so lucky this time.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), N V Knight, A J Stewart (wkt), N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, R D B Croft, D G Cork, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell, C White.

NEW ZEALAND (from): B A Pocock, B A Young, M J Horne, S P Fleming, N J Astle, C L Cairns, L K Germon (capt, wkt), D N Patel, S B Doull, G I Allott, D Vettori, H T Davis, D Z Harris.