Cricket: England's options depend on Cork

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The Independent Online
It will not have the dramatic appeal of the Australia versus West Indies clash going on in Adelaide this weekend, for that is a matter between the top dogs. Nevertheless, England's three-Test series against New Zealand, which begins here tomorrow, has a vital importance of its own, and both sides will be seeking the victory that is needed if cricket is to be kept from fading out of the public consciousness.

It is a problem that is more acute for Lee Germon and his New Zealand side, who have long lived a stunted existence in the mighty All Black shadow. Very soon, rugby here will be a year-round concern and cricket must make its impact now, if it is not to be confined to the domain of those things euphemistically described as alternative here in the land of the short, flat vowel.

For that reason New Zealand will be a dangerous side and one not averse to some bold risk taking in order to survive. Indeed last time England toured, five years ago, they deliberately prepared a damp green pitch at Eden Park to try to get back on terms after going 1-0 down in Christchurch. It backfired and they lost the series 2-0, but they have always risked much to win on home turf.

England's plight is perhaps not so extreme, despite the countrywide feeling that the one-day losses in Zimbabwe were something akin to Armageddon. But even if they were not, Mike Atherton and his men must restore faith by winning this three-match series. A task made more likely by winning here at Eden Park, though that will not be easy should Dominic Cork be unfit to play.

With all the bowling options revolving round Cork - who according to the England coach, David Lloyd, is being given until the morning of the match to declare his fitness - only the batsmen, who pick themselves, have been able to begin the mental preparation so vital to peak occasions such as these. England's build-up in New Zealand may have been close to perfect, but it is never ideal if some of the bowlers are left wondering whether they will be pulling on spikes or flip-flops, come the morning of the match.

As ever, much will depend on the pitch, which has been cut from a relaid part of the square that has seen just a single one-day game's play. At present the strip is well grassed and very damp, a result of it having been heavily watered on successive evenings: a suggestion that the groundsman is not confident of the surface holding together for the duration of the match. If that is the case, whichever team loses the toss can probably strap their pads on and prepare for a torrid morning session from seam and swing.

Cork's chances of being that first-morning tormentor are probably no better than fair. Mind you, he is a resilient person and if fit will probably head an attack comprising Gough, Mullally, White and Tufnell. If he is unavailable, England ought to take the plunge and play Andy Caddick, though there is a case (an unlikely one given England's traditional caution) for playing both him and Chris Silverwood should the pitch remain grassy and damp, conditions that neither Darren Gough nor Alan Mullally would perhaps use quite as well.

However, only a few days ago Atherton was still considering playing both spinners, although with the rider that Robert Croft would be the player favoured should only one eventually be required. That whole ethos appears to have changed from top to bottom with Phil Tufnell now looking the more likely to go solo and undertake a stock bowler's job into the wind.

It is a role the Middlesex spinner is well suited to and one he probably does better than Croft, who is more aggressive, and therefore invariably more expensive in his probings.

Mind you, Tufnell's habit of retrenching, by going around the wicket and exploiting the rough outside leg stump, will not be as easy to fall back upon at Eden Park, with its strange angles and short leg-side boundaries, quirks the burly Inzamam-ul-Haq brilliantly exploited to see Pakistan through to the 1992 World Cup final with a whirlwind half-century.

Under Steve Rixon, the former New South Wales coach, New Zealand have raised their confidence and toughened their outlook. Historically, they have always outperformed their worth at home, though a recent drawn series in Pakistan suggests they have the bowling firepower to beat good sides.

Even so they will probably opt for the same make-up as England, and leave out the spinner Mark Haslam, who bowled just five overs to Dipak Patel's 19 in the trial match just finished. Instead they will look to attack England with the new ball swing of Danny Morrison and the gangly Simon Doull, with Chris Cairns as first change and Nathan Astle for support.

Cairns could well be the pivotal figure of this series with both bat and ball, and much of the home side's chances of beating England lie on his not inconsiderable shoulders. He is the opposition's only really spectacular batsman, and if he performs, England's winter misery may well be compounded further.

Yet all the signs are that this is a different England side from the one skulking around Africa a month ago and there is no doubt that two storming wins in the last 10 days have made their Zimbabwean misadventure a distant memory.

Gone is the "just sucked a sour lime" demeanour so prevalent in Harare. In fact we are almost back to the Mars bar ethic of "work, rest and play" that surfaced in the West Indies three years ago, prior to Ray Illingworth's reign as chairman of selectors. Then England's buoyant mood was due to the rude form of Atherton and Alec Stewart. A situation that, ominously, is only half true at present.

First Test teams

NEW ZEALAND (probable): B A Young, B A Pocock, A C Parore, S P Fleming, N J Astle, C L Cairns, J T C Vaughan, L K Germon (wkt, capt), D N Patel, S B Doull, D K Morrison.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), N V Knight, A J Stewart (wkt), N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, C White, R D V Croft, D Gough, C E W Silverwood, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell, D G Cork.

Umpires: S Dunne (New Zealand) and S Bucknor (West Indies).

Match referee: P Burge (Australia).