Cricket: England's attack strays from target

FIRST TEST: Pace bowlers let down Atherton as New Zealand easily avoid the danger zone
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New Zealand 233-5 v England

It may not rank with the greatest blunders in Test cricket, but inserting the opposition and not bowling them out within a day does little to ease an agitated captain's state of mind. Michael Atherton has often been accused of being churlish, but on this occasion even the Captain Grumpy in him could have been forgiven for turning nasty in the face of such extreme provocation from his wayward bowlers.

In the end, he kept remarkably calm despite the overwhelming sense of deja vu. Here, as in the Bulawayo Test, England began as if waking from deep slumber and sleepwalking their way through a morning session that included some of the poorest new ball bowling yet seen from this team. The England captain has been blamed for most things this winter, but even he could not be held responsible for the meanderings of Alan Mullally and Dominic Cork.

It was a puzzle and, given the pair's excellent efforts in the warm-up matches, it must have come as a rude shock to suddenly become a by-word for sprayers and decorators. In the first hour, their bowling strayed so far from the usual channel six inches either side of off-stump that the New Zealand openers had to play at less than half the balls they received. Little wonder then that, by the 12th over, Atherton had turned to the spin of Philip Tufnell.

Mitigating circumstances were few and, even though the the swing was inconsistent, it is still rare to find all three of a side's front-line bowlers - Darren Gough included - off-colour at the same time. Perhaps there was not quite as much juice in the pitch as everyone first thought, a theory later scotched by the England coach, David Lloyd, who said that bowling first was a "bog standard decision" and that England "didn't take advantage of that, and to a man we bowled poorly".

Lloyd said that he "stayed away" during the intervals to "let them get on with it" - a strange thing for a verbose man like the England coach to do and one that is clearly the action of someone frustrated by the naivety of the players in his charge. Curiously, he also admitted he had left the talking to England's part-time bowling coach and motivator, Ian Botham. What the maestro said is anyone's guess but, if it was not communicated through a pair of Dr Martens, it was not nearly firm enough.

Putting a team in to bat is always a bold move, a risk based partly on guesswork (how much movement the pitch provides) and partly on the hope that your bowlers will be in fine fettle. Neither occurred, though it would not be difficult to forgive Atherton for making the decision given that, one, he does not win the toss that often and, two, he had just had Cork perform the kind of resurrection that even Lazarus would have been impressed by.

Cork is a fine performer and his presence in New Zealand has definitely lifted his team-mates. In a way, maybe that was the problem and, by expecting him to run through the opposition, the others perhaps sub-consciously reigned back.

Of course, when wickets do not tumble, the opposite happens and the urgency to make amends tends to overwhelm the basics, something Gough was particularly guilty of in his first spell, when he became unbalanced from trying to bowl too fast.

The beneficiaries of England's wastefulness were New Zealand's opening batsmen, Blair Pocock and Bryan Young. At Hamilton both had looked vulnerable to Cork's outswing. Here they looked remarkably assured and, when they were forced to play a stroke, it invariably found its way to the third- man fence.

Batting largely untroubled until lunch, they shared a stand of 85 before Young was given out lbw for 44 after being trapped clean in front of middle stump by Mullally's fine in-ducker. Ironically for the bowler, it was the very spit of a delivery that had earlier caught Pocock in front of his stumps off the 12th ball of the morning, but on that occasion the umpire Steve Bucknor had ruled against the lbw appeal.

It was the kind of good fortune that Pocock, in his injury-interrupted Test career, had probably been waiting for, and after a cautious start he clearly began to enjoy the occasion and played several crashing drives on the up off Gough.

After lunch England did find it in themselves to fight back, though they needed a slice of luck to get rid of Adam Parore, who was caught off Cork down the leg-side. Such dismissals are normally considered to be the height of bad luck but, as England had spent most of their time exploring this line, perhaps it was just reward for some grander plan.

However unlucky Parore considered himself, his departure was good news for all those in need of some uplifting cricket. Stephen Fleming may be something of an underachiever, but his languid strokeplay is such that it can tickle the bellies of salmon, a skill the left-hander put to good use as he cut and drove with consummate ease before lifting an overworked Tufnell for an effortless six over mid-wicket.

While he was at the crease, England were forced to defend for fear of haemorrhaging runs, a situation that eased when Gough brought Pocock's 197-ball stay to an end with a classic yorker to the boot.

Next to go was Nathan Astle to a wild swish off Craig White, and when Justin Vaughan, a left-handed medical doctor, was palpably lbw to Cork with the second new ball, England had clawed their way back into the reckoning. That said, they might even have finished slightly ahead of the home side on points had Gough not dropped Chris Cairns, another of New Zealand's danger men, at mid-off just before the close.

Scoreboard from first day

England won toss

NEW ZEALAND - First Innings

B A Young lbw b Mullally 44

(141 min, 119 balls, 5 fours)

B A Pocock lbw b Gough 70

(286 min, 197 balls, 8 fours)

A C Parore c Stewart b Cork 6

(47 min, 28 balls, 1 four)

S P Fleming not out 58

(181 min, 138 balls, 8 fours, 1 six)

N J Astle c Stewart b White 10

(26 min, 25 balls, 2 fours)

J T C Vaughan lbw b Cork 3

(24 min, 21 balls)

C L Cairns not out 15

(32 min, 27 balls, 2 fours)

Extras (b5 lb6 w2 nb14) 27

Total (for 5, 373 min, 90 overs) 233

Fall: 1-85 (Young), 2-114 (Parore), 3-193 (Pocock), 4-210 (Astle), 5-215 (Vaughan).

To bat: *L K Germon, D N Patel, S B Doull, D K Morrison.

Bowling: Cork 21-5-53-2 (nb4) (5-0-17-0, 4-1-11-0, 7-3-11-1, 5-1-14-1); Mullally 18-6-33-1 (nb3 w1) (4-3-2-0, 7-2-19-1, 3-0-7-0, 4-1-5-0); Gough 20-3-51-1 (nb6) (4-0-10-0, 8-1-19-0, 8-2-22-1); Tufnell 20-5-46-0 (3-1- 5-0, 5-1-13-0, 12-3-28-0); White 11-3-39-1 (nb2) (4-1-17-0, 2-0-12-0, 5-2-10-1).

Progress: 50: 81 min, 19 overs. Lunch: 72-0 (Young 37, Pocock 25) 29 overs. 100: 157 min, 36.4 overs. 150: 233 min, 54.1 overs. Tea: 154-2 (Pocock 54, Fleming 25) 56 overs. 200: 304 min, 72.1 overs. New ball taken 80.2 overs, 214-4.

Pocock's 50: 230 min, 160 balls, 5 fours.

Fleming 50's: 106 min, 89 balls, 7 fours, 1 six.

ENGLAND: N V Knight, *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, C White, D G Cork, D Gough, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell.

Umpires: S A Bucknor and R S Dunne.

TV replay umpire: D B Cowie.

Match referee: P J P Burge.

Second Test: 6-10 February (Basin Reserve, Wellington). Third Test: 14- 18 February (Lancaster Park, Christchurch).