Cricket: England ground down by Flower

FIRST TEST: Atherton falls early as his tourists make a damp start to their pursuit of Zimbabwe's imposing total
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Zimbabwe 376 England 48-1

One of the features of this tour has been the coach David Lloyd's remorseless search for the positive aspects of England's play. As this has so far centred on the sub-atomic, a session here, an over there, England's coach would have needed something akin to an electron microscope to find anything good about yesterday's rain shortened day, especially after Andy Flower's century has made Zimbabwe's position in this first Test a virtually impregnable one.

It was a resolute performance from the elder Flower, who with the help of a useful tail, took Zimbabwe's total to 376. A score that brought differing responses from the rival camps, with Lloyd feeling it was: "A bonus and manageable on a smashing batting pitch," while Flower felt it to be: "A reasonable enough total to put England under pressure, with the leggie [Paul Strang] beginning to do things as the rough on the pitch spreads."

On such a slow playing surfac e, however, neither view can be totally discounted, although England's is by far the more optimistic considering their recent batting form and the fact that they will have to bat last on a pitch already taking spin, albeit slowly.

Once again there appeared little in it for the seamers, and not a great deal more for England's two spinners, as Zimbabwe unhurriedly added to their overnight score. What turn there was, came from bowler's footholes and Flower spent a gritty 59 minutes in the nineties, as Phil Tufnell probed and sifted the rough outside the left-hander's off-stump. Flower's vigilance eventually ended soon after lunch after he reverse swept the Middlesex spinner for three to bring up his hundred: a daring wristy shot made almost regulation by the squash and hockey upbringing that is the norm for most white Zimbabweans.

It was the 28-year-old Flower's third Test century, and one he claimed gave him an extra frisson, coming as it did against England, where he spent last summer coaching at Epsom College and playing for Eastbourne in the Sussex League. Unless a call to county cricket intervenes, he will be taking up summer residency in the Parks and the challenge of coaching Oxford University. That establishment is not renowned for its tolerance of modern vulgarities such as the reverse sweep.

Mind you the way England - Robert Croft excepted - have bowled generally, it was difficult to find a batsman under stress in any position, and for the most part, Zimbabwe's tail-enders looked as untroubled as Flower. As in the first two sessions on Wednesday, England were far too short, particularly to Paul Strang, who gave an Alan Knott-like exhibition of upper cuts over the slips, as he and Flower added 79 for the seventh wicket.

Strang, who has a Test century aginst Pakistan to his name, also played some fine aggressive shots off the spinners and Croft, who opened the day's proceedings with Darren Gough, was twice whacked for four as he strayed from Wednesday's impeccable length.

It was hereabouts that England looked totally bereft of ideas and only a smart catch by Phil Tufnell over his head, brought Strang's cameo to an end as he chipped a slower full-toss from Chris Silverwood to mid-on.

With charcoal shaded thunderclouds building dramatically, Heath Streak played-on to Mullally, while Tufnell, at last settling into a rhythm, accounted for Flower, who, in attempting a deft sweep to leg, gloved the ball up high enough for Alec Stewart to complete a fine diving catch. Nick Knight similarly smartly pouched Henry Olonga at silly point a few balls later.

As the air filled with the distinctive smell of rain peculiar to the drier parts of Africa, England began their innings in fading light, a handicap made up for by the absence of Eddo Brandes, Zimbabwe's mercurial swing bowler, who had gone over on his ankle the day before the Test.

While seam prevailed, England suffered few alarms but when the home side brought on a second Strang, Paul, for the first, the seamer Bryan, he immediately got his wrist-spinners to grip. With the home side desperate for a wicket before the rain set in, Strang - normally a looping leg-spinner - pushed one through to catch Atherton back on his crease, unable to get bat to ball.

It was not, perhaps, the most indisputable of lbws but it gave the home side the fillip they had wanted just a ball before tea. As Atherton trudged off to the sole applause of a huge thunderclap, rain began to fall as both play and England's riposte were suspended for the rest of the day.

England and Pakistan have added their support to the idea of a world championship of Test cricket, a blueprint for which was unveiled by Matthew Engel, the editor of Wisden, in October and drew immediate praise from Ali Bacher, the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa.