England, their morale already pockmarked by the scars of recent under- performance in Zimbabwe, could go into the First Test against New Zealand on Friday, without their inspirational swing bowler, Dominic Cork.
He left the field after feeling a sharp stabbing pain in the lower right- hand side of his back as he tried to bowl a bouncer with the final delivery of his ninth over, did not return and later left the ground in a stabilising corset. As his injury did not respond to treatment overnight, he was sent for X-rays before the third day's play started this morning.
The severity of back conditions is notoriously difficult to assess without fancy scanning equipment. According to the physio, Wayne Morton, all the X-ray showed was that the damage was not structural and is therefore likely to be a soft tissue injury, which is more serious. Apparently even a slight tear can take as long as six weeks to heal, which makes Cork's return to fitness over the next four days unlikely.
This is particularly sombre news for England, who through Cork had at last begun to look capable of bowling sides out. He is undoubtedly England's most valuable asset with the ball and the single most important reason for their resurgence here in New Zealand. And yet, as is evident by his on-field persona, Cork is an attention seeker - though in the best possible sense of the phrase - and likes to be pampered. Also hobbling off and returning to wreak havoc lends to his heightened sense of drama and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for him to be back performing his mini-haka lbw appeal in front of the umpire during the first Test.
A strong breeze did not help their cause yesterday, but the England attack returned to the toothless realities of Zimbabwe where their lack of penetration produced a tour they wished time would forget.
Once Cork had left the field, they rarely troubled their opponents, which is ominous now that they look like having to make do without him in the first Test. Until that moment the only discomfort was experienced by the Northern Districts openers - also the Kiwis' Test openers - as Cork again proved the pick of the bowlers, his outswinger constantly committing and then bamboozling Bryan Young, who later edged the bowler's shorter, effort- ball behind to Stewart.
Cork's presence for just nine overs meant that the rhythms of this breezy shower-interrupted day appeared somewhat bizarrely to revolve around the two heavy rollers used, one by England before the start and the other by the home side just prior to their second innings after lunch, when England had been bowled out for 294.
Surprisingly intricate theories abound about the effects of applying light or heavy rollers. Unsurprisingly, most of them are bunkum and most captains take little more time in deciding which one to have than it takes to flick a light switch.
Nevertheless, the rollers (both heavy) used here produced vastly differing conditions for the pace men, the first bringing up moisture from overnight rain, while the second - when England bowled and Cork had departed - appeared to flatten the pitch out to the extent that a team who looked as fragile as antique porcelain one day, suddenly became as robust as an earthenware pot.
The same solidity could not be levelled at England, particularly once Graham Thorpe and John Crawley had both been removed in successive overs with the second new ball. They had added 125 for the fifth wicket when Thorpe, on 71, edged faintly to the keeper off Alex Tait who ended with a worthy 5 for 96.
Although, disappointingly, the three figures in an England shirt again eluded Thorpe, it was a knock that would have nurtured him, boosting his self-esteem and perhaps ending, for the moment, the speculation over why such a seemingly organised and uncomplicated player should have had such a protracted slump in form.
No such question marks are being levelled at John Crawley, who along with Alec Stewart is batting with all his moving parts sweeping fluently like a Rolex. When he defended, the ball was stopped softly as if by a velvet glove. When he attacked, it was hit crisply with a sound akin to snapping celery, and he struck 10 fours before a good one from the opening bowler Scott Styris found his outside edge.
Their sudden departure meant England were made to work for their runs, a job the remaining batsmen, bar Craig White, failed to make light of and the Yorkshireman was left unbeaten on 22 after Alan Mullally's inglorious heave failed to find red leather. It meant that England had to settle for a first-innings lead of 225, having lost their last six wickets in 20 overs bowled after the second new ball was taken.
However, Cork's marvellous outswing apart, England did not make the most of their new ball, with Mullally tending to stray too straight, particularly to Blair Pocock, whose one secure shot appears to be the on-side clip - a stroke Mullally, who also later left the field apparently suffering from flu, generously fed.
Undoubtedly the strong wind, an ever-present feature of New Zealand, posed problems, particularly for those like Mullally and White, who had to bowl into it. For spinners, however, that kind of wind can be a help by providing both dip and drift, two things brilliantly exploited by the home side's teenage left-armer Daniel Vettori.
Only 17, Vettori, despite picking up just one wicket, was the pick of the opposition's bowlers, and he also extracted sharp turn where the other spinners, including Robert Croft, merely got bounce, and although the Welshman did have Pocock dropped by Stewart when the batsman was on 44, it was the only threatening moment the home side had to endure following Cork's departure after tea.
Second day of four; England won toss
NORTHERN DISTRICTS - First Innings 69 (D G Cork 3-18, C White 3-17, D Gough 3-23).
ENGLAND - First Innings
N V Knight c R G Hart b Styris 39
*M A Atherton lbw b Styris 5
A J Stewart c Bennett b Tait 40
N Hussain c Young b Vettori 7
G P Thorpe c R G Hart b Tait 71
J P Crawley c R G Hart b Styris 65
C White not out 22
R D B Croft c Bell b Tait 2
D G Cork c Pocock b Styris 7
D Gough b Tait 15
A D Mullally b Tait 2
Extras (lb7, w1, nb11) 19
Total (105.5 overs) 294
Fall: 1-12, 2-89, 3-93, 4-116, 5-241, 6-241, 7-246, 8-273, 9-290.
Bowling: Styris 31-7-110-4; Bennett 12-0-31-0; Tait 36.5-12-96-5; Vettori 20-8-30-1; M N Hart 6-1-20-0.
NORTHERN DISTRICTS - Second Innings
*B A Pocock not out 60
B A Young c Stewart b Cork 2
M D Bell not out 35
Extras (lb1, nb1) 2
Total (for 1, 43 overs) 99
To bat: M D Bailey, M E Parlane, M N Hart, A R Tait, R G Hart, S B Styris, D L Vettori, D R Bennett.
Bowling: Cork 9-3-23-1; Mullally 10-4-20-0; White 5-2-13-0; Croft 12- 3-24-0; Gough 6-0-15-0; Thorpe 1-0-3-0.
Umpires: D V Cowie and C V King.Reuse content