Cricket: Third Test - Rain comes to England's rescue

England 199 & 181-2 New Zealand 496-9 dec Match drawn; Stewart battles hard for an unbeaten 83 at Old Trafford but draw cannot hide the flaws
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The Independent Online
IT FELL to a combination of rain and doughty batting by Alec Stewart to ensure England left Manchester with a draw, but those twin impostors must not be allowed obscure the deep flaws that scar first-class cricket in this country from top to toe. Although a wail of protest will go up for new young talent to be blooded in the final Test at The Oval, some ruthless changes must be made to the system itself, and quickly. If they are not, selecting the lads most likely to succeed will be no more than the guessing game it appears at present.

Change for change sake, which is what tends to follow when England reach their annual nadir, rarely produces the intended results. Promoting youth, especially before it has found its feet, is all very laudable, but unless a team begins winning again you can destroy the next generation's confidence as well. Surgery can be performed, but it must be done skilfully with a scalpel rather than a chainsaw.

Mind you, the selectors, two of whom were involved in Sunday night's "crisis dinner" with the big-wigs of the England and Wales Cricket Board, have not helped matters. By alternating between policies that emphasise longer-term investments with those that demand short-term results, they have confused matters.

See-sawing between the two rarely provides a solution, something the incoming coach, Duncan Fletcher, who has been co-opted on to the selection panel, will no doubt point out when the panel meets later in the week.

Another of Sunday night's dining club was David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. Asked if any other decisions were taken over the three courses, he kept mum, though he did admit that he and his panel "were not deaf to the cries of the public".

Let us hope he is true to his word, for the silence at Old Trafford, never more than half-full, was deafening. The British public are hardy souls but even they will not come unless there is an upturn in both the spirit and quality of cricket being played.

The absence of Nasser Hussain, the captain, as well as Darren Gough, have not helped matters, while the injury to Alex Tudor, the talisman of their victory in the First Test, has been a blow to both team and player. Mitigation there may be, but that does not alter the fact that, with an inexperienced captain in Mark Butcher, England have been outplayed in all departments over the last five days.

Let us get this clear: England did not deserve to draw this match, as they did here last year. That result was also against the run of play, but keeping out Allan Donald, without the help of inclement weather, somehow seemed bathed in glory rather than doused in fortune. This time, justice was clearly not served and their grim, apprehensive cricket did not get its just desserts.

Since England began their second innings immediately after lunch on Sunday, 297 runs in arrears, 112 overs were lost to the weather. The way England have batted of late, that is an eternity, and enough time for them to lose 20 wickets, let alone the 10 Stephen Fleming's men needed for victory.

Disappointed as New Zealand will be, they will not leave Old Trafford as demoralised as South Africa were last season. They know they were robbed and that rain, and not a renaissance, was primarily responsible for the series remaining at 1-1.

There were other factors, not least an enhanced England batting performance on a pitch that defied expectation by easing as the match went on. Say what you like about Stewart, but his good timing has rarely been so appropriate. His place under threat, Stewart played his best knock of the summer, his unbeaten 83 made possible by unwavering shot selection and positive footwork.

Aware that Stewart and his overnight partner Graham Thorpe prefer to start against pace, Fleming opened with the left-arm spin of Daniel Vettori and the slow-medium cutters of Chris Harris. If the move brought early caution it did not bring wickets and, once the Surrey pair had settled, some handsome shots were played.

When Fleming did eventually call for Chris Cairns in the 15th over both players were set. Apart from downgrading his spat with Thorpe at Lord's to mere eye contact here, Cairns did not look dangerous and Stewart twice stroked him for off-side fours off the back foot.

Cairns did not persist for long and after three overs of mixing effort and slower balls he was replaced by Harris. Not long afterwards, at 3.15 pm, persistent rain began to fall and the players headed for the dressing- room. Unless they improve by quantum leaps for the final Test starting on 19 August, they will surely be heading for a series defeat too.

OLD TRAFFORD SCOREBOARD

Fifth day; England won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings 199 (M R Ramprakash 69no).

NEW ZEALAND - First Innings 496 for 9 dec (C D McMillan 107no, N J Astle 101, M D Bell 83; P M Such 4-114).

ENGLAND - Second Innings

(Overnight: 118 for 2)

A J Stewart not out 83

204 min, 198 balls, 12 fours

G P Thorpe not out 25

76 min, 72 balls, 4 fours

Extras (b9, lb7) 16

Total (for 2, 68 overs) 181

Did not bat: M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, C M W Read, A R Caddick, D W Headley, P M Such, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Cairns 11-1-54-0 (8-1-39-0 3-0-15-0); Nash 10-3-26-1 (5-3-9- 1 5-0-17-0); Astle 3-1-7-0; Vettori 26-12-48-1 (one spell each); Harris 18-6-30-0 (16-6-22-0, 2-0-8-0).

Progress: Start delayed until 2pm. 150: 176 mins, 60.3 overs. Rain stopped play: 3.15pm. Abandoned: 4.48pm.

Stewart 50: 131 mins, 123 balls, 8 fours.

Umpires: D R Shepherd (Eng) and R B Tiffin (Zim).

Man of the match: C D McMillan

MATCH DRAWN

Compiled by Jo King

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