Cricket: Kiwis' captain with saloon bar spirit: Ken Rutherford has emulated Mike Atherton in giving New Zealand a more relaxed regime. Glenn Moore reports

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AT FIRST GLANCE, this morning's toss between the captains, Mike Atherton and Ken Rutherford, before the second Texaco Trophy match at Lord's will hardly be a meeting of minds.

Atherton, a Cambridge honours graduate and reader of Milan Kundera and Joseph Heller, will be facing a New Zealander more likely to be found studying the Sporting Life, whose commerce degree remains unfinished and who is known by the Aussies as the 'Likeable Larrikin' - which is Strine for being a bit of a lad.

But superficial knowledge can be deceptive; the pair have much in common and not just a love for Manchester United and good ale. Both are decent men who have responded, as batsmen and leaders, to the responsibility of taking over the captaincy of poor sides. While Atherton's regime has seen a loosening of the 'work ethic', Rutherford's approach can be assessed by his listing 'nets' as a pet hate in a recent questionnaire.

Given New Zealand's lack of resources, Rutherford's baptism was even harder than Atherton's. He had had one game as acting captain - a home loss from a position of strength to Pakistan 16 months ago - before taking over when Martin Crowe was injured in the first Test with Australia last November. It was, he admits, 'an awful start'. Australia inflicted New Zealand's worst Test defeat - by an innings and 222 runs - at Hobart, then won the third Test by an innings and 92. Being his side's top scorer in both matches was little consolation for Rutherford, who began to fear New Zealand being relegated to a satellite Test circuit with Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

'Fortunately we have improved since then, but our performances have still got to get better. We are competitive at one-day cricket but Tests are the yardstick,' he said this week.

Back in New Zealand, successive Tests were lost to Pakistan but in the third New Zealand achieved their highest-ever fourth-innings winning total of 324. A draw against India followed and, with Crowe concentrating on his fitness, Rutherford retained the captaincy for this summer's tour.

'While our young players are learning about their batting and bowling on this tour, I am learning about captaincy from watching the likes of Mike Gatting,' he said.

Rutherford's relaxed approach has impressed inside and outside the team, the comparison with his predecessor being described as 'saloon bar to Crowe's lounge bar'. The switch has also helped Crowe, who has looked relaxed and, Rutherford said, 'has been very constructive in team meeting situations and very keen to help the young players. He is relishing the chance to concentrate on his batting and is really motivated to do well. New Zealand need him to: he is our one world-class player.'

Rutherford's own batting has reacted well to captaincy. Though he was averaging 50 in the 18 months before the job, and 36 since, the vastly improved quality of opposition (Warne and Waqar, rather than Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka) needs to be taken into account. He has made a third of the 15 scores of 50-plus made by the team in those six Tests, but not yet a century as captain.

'I think I can get better and get more hundreds,' he said. 'I have been more consistent as captain, the responsibility has helped my concentration. When, in the first innings against Middlesex at Lord's I played a terrible shot and was out after just a couple of balls, my thought was not for myself - it was 'Gee whizz, what a fine example to set for the rest of the guys.' That sums up my attitude since being captain.'

Other than the more classical Crowe, Rutherford is the Kiwis' most attractive batsman, a flair player who, like David Gower, has sometimes attracted criticism for the manner of his dismissals as captain.

'I am a guy who has his own technique and individual shots and occasionally I am going to make a mistake because of the way I play. I have got used to it myself, it is getting other people used to it. People don't get criticised if they play a forward defensive and get out, they do if they cut and get caught at gully.'

Rutherford has got over a forbidding start to his Test career when, as a 20-year-old in 1985, he averaged 1.71 in his first series in the West Indies. He feels the experience set him back several years, not just for the lack of support he received from senior batsmen - something he is careful to avoid with the current side's youngsters - but also as it meant he was no longer eligible to play county cricket.

An MCC Young Cricketer - along with Phil Tufnell and Phillip DeFreitas - Rutherford played club cricket in Yorkshire and had hoped for a couple of seasons playing county cricket as he was English-qualified.

His parents emigrated from Aberdeen in 1950 and most of Rutherford's relatives remain in Scotland. They settled in Dunedin, a city with a strong Scottish heritage (the name is Celtic for Edinburgh), an independent streak and wet, blustery winters. The sheep- farming community of Invercargill apart, there is little to the south except sheep and penguins.

'There is a lot more fervour and pride attached to our sport than any other province,' Rutherford said. 'It is a bit like Yorkshire in that if we have one of our own doing well on the national scene we take to them. If someone like Boycott went to the crease and made a century everyone in Yorkshire rejoiced. If one of our local All Blacks had a terrible game no one in Otago (Dunedin's province) thought so. I am in a similar position as the only regular cricketer since Glenn Turner - I can never play a bad shot, it is always a good ball.'

An unquestioning public. One senses Atherton might be rather envious.

(Photograph omitted)