Cricket: England enhance Ashes ambition

Series victory builds morale: Derek Pringle, in Christchurch, finds Atherton's men a rejuvenated team
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The transformation probably started aboard QF103, the flight that took a dispirited England out of Africa and on to New Zealand for the second leg of their winter tour. It is well known that Michael Atherton enjoys a good book, but for much of that journey the England captain had his nose deep into a magazine article about cricket, called "The Australian Way".

In fact, winning is the only way in Australia, and the lucky country does not tolerate bludgers and losers for more than a tick. It is a philosophy that appears to have been fully digested by Atherton, and it is surely no coincidence that England's cricket in New Zealand has looked far harder and incisive than it did in Zimbabwe.

However, there are other factors at play too, though each, no matter how oblique, will eventually have its say on performance. Quite simply, England did not like Zimbabwe and it showed in their cricket. It was often cautious and begrudging, a combination not enhanced by the ludicrous pronouncements made occasionally by David Lloyd, the coach.

Perhaps as an island race, England felt uncomfortable and lost on the vast continent and it was noticeable that their demeanour picked up the instant they came back into contact with those familiar touchstones of modern consumer culture: namely pizzas, burgers and karaoke bars.

Their opponents were different as well. While Zimbabwe were tenacious and played above expectation, particularly in the one-dayers, New Zealand were disjointed, disappointing and played like a country where all the predators are extinct. In fact, some critics felt New Zealand were so poor that they would be incapable of finishing in the top 10 of the County Championship.

Atherton, however, insists that the only difference between the two sectors was victory. Perhaps he is right, and one cannot help but wonder that, had the tour itinerary been reversed, Zimbabwe would have been summarily dispatched as New Zealand have been over the past month.

For Atherton, New Zealand has been the land of laughter and forgetting, and the last two wins have provided nothing but sweet relief from the welter of criticism he and his side attracted around Christmas and the New Year.

The triumphs have also more or less guaranteed his immediate future as England captain, a position not really in doubt after the recent eulogies from England Cricket Board big-wigs such as Lord MacLaurin and Bob Bennett.

The terseness present in Zimbabwe has gone too (another MacLaurin directive) and it was typical of Atherton's disregard for social status that he and a handful of team-mates spent the night celebrating England's latest win with the Barmy Army, who serenaded them with their own -as well as Oasis's - catchy songs.

His batting form, scratchy and appalling in Africa, is back to its belligerent best. The figures, for once, are revealing, and although Atherton ended the five Tests with 359 runs at an average of 51.28, he scored only 34 runs over four Test innings in Zimbabwe.

It was a batting average only bettered by Alec Stewart (71.14) and John Crawley (55.40), the most consistently in-form players of the tour. Stewart, apart from the last Test in Christchurch, was in stupendous form throughout, hitting centuries in both Harare and Auckland.

Likewise Crawley, who although a centurion in Bulawayo, will probably be best remembered for his cool head and sturdy bat on that captivating last afternoon at Lancaster Park when he and Dominic Cork inched England past that historic fourth-innings total of 305.

Inevitably there were casualties, too, and Nick Knight ended the series with his technique as well as his Test match future in disarray. Averaging almost 50 after Zimbabwe, he has barely scraped double figures here, his judgement over the whereabouts of his off-stump almost as badly shot as his confidence.

When Knight did not have a bat in his hand, however, his contributions were never less than outstanding and his catching at second slip was little short of sensational. In truth, England's fielding remained excellent throughout the winter and credit for that must go to Lloyd, who worked tirelessly at improving it.

The bowling, so often England's weakness abroad, has at last begun to look and work like a unit. That did not happen until the second Test, when Andy Caddick came in instead of Alan Mullally, and Atherton, deciding to pick his five best bowlers irrespective of the conditions, played both spinners.

Of those, Robert Croft has been by far the more urgent, his off-spin, bowled down an aggressive off-stump line, constantly troubling the batsman. In all, his 18 wickets cost him around 19 runs apiece, and along with his breezy bonhomie, made him the find of the tour.

It was not an accolade that one could pin on his spinning partner, Phil Tufnell, who is not the same spinner who bowled England to victory here five years ago.

The pace department had its problems, too, and with Cork either absent or quiet and Caddick not playing until Wellington, it was left to Darren Gough to fill the fast-bowling void. It was a role he undertook with his usual blend of wayward brilliance and bombast. Fortunately he blew hotter than most, taking 26 wickets (19 of them in New Zealand), and his gameness for the challenge, particularly with the older ball, made him Atherton's most important weapon.

Nevertheless, England are still too inconsistent with both bat and ball, and although their lapses here were overcome by some hearteningly resilient cricket, the likes of Australia will not allow them to get back on their feet once they have stumbled.

That said, Steve Rixon, New Zealand's Australian coach, reckons England can compete with Australia, so long as Atherton and Stewart are playing somewhere near their best.

Phil Tufnell's alleged pot-smoking antics in a Christchurch bar took a new twist in the form of posters plastered all over town. The hastily- printed bills said: "Phil Tufnell must agree - Bardellis is Christchurch's Best Joint". Tufnell, who strongly denied the allegations, did not play in today's one-day international against New Zealand, having been left out for tactical reasons.

NEW ZEALAND v ENGLAND TEST AVERAGES

NEW ZEALAND

BATTING M I No Runs HS Ave 100 50 C S

D L Vettori 2 4 3 59 29no 59.00 0 0 1 0

S P Fleming 3 6 0 212 129 35.33 1 1 7 0

C L Cairns 3 6 0 208 67 34.66 0 3 0 0

N J Astle 3 6 1 172 102no 34.40 1 0 0 0

B A Pocock 3 6 0 182 70 30.33 0 2 1 0

B A Young 3 6 0 171 56 28.50 0 1 3 0

M J Horne 1 2 0 55 42 27.50 0 0 0 0

A C Parore 3 6 0 125 59 20.83 0 1 4 0

L K Germon 2 4 0 48 14 12.00 0 0 3 1

D N Patel 2 4 0 45 45 11.25 0 0 2 0

S B Doull 3 6 0 37 26 6.16 0 0 1 0

H T Davis 1 2 0 9 8 4.50 0 0 2 0

G I Allott 2 4 1 12 8no 4.00 0 0 1 0

J T C Vaughan 1 2 0 5 3 2.50 0 0 0 0

D K Morrison 1 2 2 20 14no - 0 0 0 0

BOWLING O M R W Ave 5W 10W BB

D L Vettori 103.3 32 208 7 29.71 0 0 4-97

S B Doull 105.4 31 299 9 33.22 1 0 5-75

N J Astle 67 20 134 4 33.50 0 0 2-26

D K Morrison 24.4 4 104 3 34.66 0 0 3-10

G I Allott 61.4 11 197 5 39.40 0 0 4-74

D N Patel 68 16 151 3 50.33 0 0 2-92

J T C Vaughan 36 10 57 1 57.00 0 0 1-57

C L Cairns 52 11 146 2 73.00 0 0 1-12

H T Davis 36 8 93 1 93.00 0 0 1-50

B A Pocock 2 0 10 0 - 0 0 0-0

ENGLAND

BATTING M I No Runs HS Ave 100 50 C S

M A Atherton 3 4 1 325 118 108.33 1 2 1 0

A J Stewart 3 4 0 257 173 64.25 1 1 14 2

G P Thorpe 3 4 0 247 119 61.75 2 0 1 0

D G Cork 3 4 1 121 59 40.33 0 1 3 0

P C R Tufnell 3 3 2 38 19no 38.00 0 0 0 0

J P Crawley 3 4 1 111 56 37.00 0 1 1 0

N Hussain 3 4 0 117 64 29.25 0 1 6 0

A D Mullally 1 1 0 21 21 21.00 0 0 0 0

R D B Croft 2 2 0 31 31 15.50 0 0 2 0

N V Knight 3 4 0 56 29 14.00 0 0 9 0

A R Caddick 2 3 0 39 20 13.00 0 0 1 0

D Gough 3 3 0 20 18 6.66 0 0 0 0

C White 1 1 0 0 0 0.00 0 0 0 0

BOWLING O M R W Ave 5W 10W BB

R D B Croft 90.1 27 162 10 16.20 1 0 5-95

D Gough 127.3 31 361 19 19.00 1 0 5-40

A R Caddick 87.5 25 174 8 21.75 0 0 4-45

A D Mullally 53 22 102 3 34.00 0 0 2-47

P C R Tufnell 132 47 242 7 34.57 0 0 3-53

C White 25 5 77 2 38.50 0 0 2-51

D G Cork 98.5 21 300 7 42.85 0 0 3-96

G P Thorpe 1 1 0 0 - 0 0 0-0

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