Cricket: England set a bold agenda

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THE frustration of rain that hastened the end for Michael Atherton in Barbados has blighted the first home Test of Alec Stewart, his successor as England captain. As in Bridgetown, England controlled this match for four days, only to be denied by downpours, which yesterday prevented a single ball from being bowled.

With little prospect of the rain relenting, the match was eventually called off as a draw at 2.20pm. By then the outfield had become so sodden that the captains agreed that further play was unlikely.

England, as well as the faithful who turned up and huddled under umbrellas, deserved more than the sight of a waterlogged Brumbrella. Their cricket, despite the broken finger sustained by Darren Gough, which denied them his services with the ball, has been refreshingly bold. Only a timid phase on the second day, when the middle order allowed Paul Adams to bowl 17 overs for 26 runs, provided a glimpse of the caution of old.

"I thought that for four days everything went really well," Stewart said. "The way we batted on the first day, set up the platform for a good total, though losing Gough was a big influence."

Nobody who has watched England over the past 10 years could have been prepared for the batting onslaught on the fourth evening, when watchfulness was shunned and 170 runs were added in 45 overs in almost complete disregard for self. Whether or not the weather forecast had a bearing, it seems obvious that Stewart does not want to be regarded as one of cricket's shrinking violets.

Normally such pro-action on a team basis is reserved for lost causes, or for when the series has been lost, as it was against Australia at The Oval last August. This time the message to opponents appears to be unambiguous from the start: England clearly fancy themselves, even after losing their premier strike bowler.

Gough's absence was a crucial factor and he will be out for at least three weeks, which means he will miss the next Test at Lord's. With the fast bowler fit and firing, England almost certainly would have been further down the road to winning this first Cornhill Test.

They might even have even made South Africa follow-on, something Dominic Cork and Angus Fraser, with nine wickets between them threatened but didn't achieve, probably due to the extra workload. Ironically, a missed stumping by Stewart off Robert Croft on Saturday also hindered England's hopes of making South Africa bat again.

Along with Atherton's well crafted century, Cork's return to England colours, after an absence of 16 months, was probably the highpoint of an ultimately frustrating five days.

Having put his injury and domestic problems behind him, Cork did more than a passable imitation of the player who burst so impressively on to the scene against the West Indies in 1995. The vicious outswing is not quite back, but neither are the histrionics, a trade-off most will live with for the present.

Freed of his millstone, though he denies the captaincy was ever a burden, Atherton's return to form was perhaps less unexpected than Cork's. He is after all a sensible, albeit stubborn man, not given to taking easy options. Averaging just 20, since his last Test century in Christchurch 16 months ago, Atherton has been determined to claw his way back to form with the bat.

In his perverse way, Atherton thrived on the pressures of captaincy, at least initially. But rather than a weight off his shoulders, the loss of the captaincy has made him even more aware of the need to prove his batting worth, something his skilfully constructed century, as well as his second-innings cameo, amply confirmed.

Confronted by helpful conditions, South Africa's bowlers were disappointing. The slowness of the pitch, particularly on the first day, demanded accuracy that simply wasn't forthcoming.

Perhaps the international grind of the last year is beginning to take its toll on Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. Both fast bowlers are rumoured to be carrying injuries - Donald a chronically bad ankle (plausible as he had an injection in one during the match) and Pollock a double hernia (improbable).

Their lack of form in this match is bound to be of concern and South Africa will almost be forced to play them in the three-day match against Sussex, beginning on Friday. This is categorically not what the visitors had intended at the start of the tour, the initial plan being to rest both opening bowlers between Tests.

Nevertheless, if one of their strengths was well under par, the famed tenacity as well as the depth of their batting order were well to the fore. Needing 263 to avoid the follow-on, and in deep trouble at 121 for 4, South Africa, mainly through a fighting 95 from Jonty Rhodes, fought their way to relative safety.

Providing Gough can return for the third Test - by which time the furore of football's World Cup should have died down - this series could be as close and hard fought as everyone, including the England captain, is predicting.

"With two sides looking to play competitive cricket," Stewart said, "the series is set up well. Hopefully the sun will shine and England come out on top."

CORNHILL INSURANCE FIRST TEST Edgbaston (no play yesterday): England 462 (M A Atherton 103, M A Butcher 77; A A Donald 4-95) and 170 for 8; South Africa 343 (J N Rhodes 95, D J Cullinan 78, J H Kallis 61, L Klusener 57; D G Cork 5-93, A R C Fraser 4-103). Match drawn.