Cricket / Third Test: Atherton papers over the cracks: Restrained White supports captain's valuable contribution as England crawl towards respectability after Nash strikes double blow

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England 199-4 v New Zealand

'MANCHESTER - European City of Drama 1994' proclaim the banners around the city. From The Count of Monte Christo to a history of the singing boyo, Tom Jones, Manchester is pulsing with dramatic activity.

Everywhere that is except at this ground where England's cricketers, treading the boards like sleepwalkers, yesterday put on a production that was like Waiting for Godot without the excitement.

The other Old Trafford has become known as the 'Theatre of Dreams' partly because of Giggs, Cantona and company play football there the way most people can only dream about. Many more days like this and the cricketing one will be so known because everyone ends up asleep. Never mind stimulants, the only banned substance likely to show up on a drug test of yesterday's protagonists is morphine.

Although a late flurry nudged the score clear of inclusion in one of Wisden's more chilling pages - the one dedicated to slow scoring - England, managed just 199 runs in 90 overs with the middle session reaping 46 in 30. Mike Atherton has batted throughout for 96 runs, a valuable innings which deserves to be converted to a century this morning, but not one to stir the soul.

Its pace was partly dictated by events with England slumping to 104 for 4 before Atherton found a kindred spirit in Craig White. Eschewing his usual aggression White batted 51 overs for an unbeaten 42 enabling England to regain parity, if not control.

Even so, on the day the Test and County Cricket Board announced they had opened negotiations for the new television contract - and are seeking a substantial increase - the cricket hardly served as a compelling product demonstration. The punters yesterday made their feelings clear in mid-afternoon with a chorus of 'boring, boring' followed by 'what a load of rubbish' accompanied by a slow clap.

The response was three more maidens before Atherton, having spent 35 minutes either side of tea on 49, played to leg and saw the ball squirt off a leading edge to third man to bring up a four-and-a- half hour fifty. It was a rare false shot in a chanceless innings, but then, he did not take any chances either.

As in England's second innings at Lord's one over from Dion Nash had determined the innings. Once again he followed the dismissal of an opener with that of Graham Gooch for nought. This time Gooch went to his first ball, tamely steering it into Bryan Young's hands at second slip.

With Alec Stewart, after a bright start, having been caught off a top-edged pull, England were 37 for 2 and the only consolation was that the occasion was perfect for Robin Smith to provide a blistering response to his critics.

Having safely negotiated the hat-trick ball he played a classic square drive to his third, sending it scudding to the boundary. But next ball he was beaten and, after an hour's diffident batting he chopped on, undone once more by his keenness to cut balls too close to his body.

Graeme Hick, the other batsman in the shadow of the axe, was no more convincing. Having spent 20 balls getting off the mark he was dismissed for a 25-over 20 having, like Stewart, top-edged a pull after being surprised by the bounce.

It was a poor return from the pair after Atherton's pledge of faithfulness. Smith's Test form appears to have irretrievably broken down and, with John Crawley making a timely century for Lancashire yesterday, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Keith Fletcher had a word for Hick, but the England manager's suggestion that the No 5 who is all at sixes and sevens 'might yet take four catches and score a second-innings hundred' will not exactly ease the pressure on him.

Credit to New Zealand for a disciplined performance but, while the bowling was steady, it was treated with exaggerated respect, so much so that Matthew Hart did not concede a run for his first six overs. Fletcher offered in mitigation of the batsmen 'a little bit of uneven bounce which we did not expect' and professed himself happy with his team's position.

Today is apparently the longest day of the year, a second having been added to Greenwich Mean Time in the early hours to accommodate the vagaries of time. If it is a repeat of yesterday it will certainly feel like it.

Pakistan are to tour England in 1996, four years after the ball-tampering row which soured their last visit. It understood they will play three Tests plus two one-day games.

(Photograph omitted)