Cricket: Thorpe lays his ghosts

The Second Test: Surrey batsman beats his mental block with successive centuries to put England in command
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Graham Thorpe did it again. The batsman who made a habit of failing to convert fifties into hundreds scored his second century in successive innings here. It may be that 1997 turns out to be a leap year for Thorpe, who, as in Auckland, ensured that his three-figure effort resulted in a sizeable first-innings lead.

Back-to-back centuries are a great achievement in any form of cricket and Thorpe was clearly delighted with his efforts. Nevertheless, like the New Zealand dollar, which does not quite share parity with its Australian equivalent, these do not carry the significance of his other hundreds, both of which were against the old enemy - one at Trent Bridge on his debut, the other two winters ago in Perth.

New Zealand cricket seems to be suffering from acute apathy at the moment, and the game's image here has not exactly been helped by allegations from a taxi driver and one or two other witnesses of late-night carousing by four members of the present team on Friday.

However, a statement issued by the New Zealand manager, John Graham, denied all knowledge of the claims, saying that the "allegations are not accurate and the New Zealand team management is satisfied that all players were fully prepared and focused on the task at hand".

It is hard to disagree and Simon Doull, one of those alleged to have been involved, ended the innings with figures of five for 75 as England lost their last six wickets for just 52 runs.

It was not the only whiff of scandal to permeate the Basin Reserve as Sky's television commentators questioned some of the intimate attention Geoff Allott had been giving to the seam. Ball-tampering is invariably a storm in a thimble, and judging by Allott's figures of one for 91, no great advantage was gained.

However, if Doull's was the best overall bowling performance of the day, the highlight was the maiden Test wicket of Daniel Vettori, the Kiwis' youngest ever Test player.

It was clearly a poignant moment for the bespectacled teenager, whose removal of Nasser Hussain - caught by Bryan Young at slip after the edge had deflected off the wicket-keeper's gloves - bore all the hallmarks of a real talent.

The dismissal completed a rare double for the youngster, who also got Hussain out during his first-class debut for Northern Districts at Hamilton.

Later, he had Andy Caddick caught in the deep at long-on to end his first taste of the lion's den with two for 98 from 34.3 overs. It was a significantly impressive effort drawing praise from both Thorpe and Steve Rixon, New Zealand's coach. "I thought he did an outstanding job," Rixon said. "He certainly seems an old head on young shoulders."

What the old head managed to do so well was to slow England's progress towards an early declaration. In the first two sessions, the visitors scored just 78 and 68 runs respectively, despite a 118-run stand between Thorpe and John Crawley.

When those two were together, England had looked capable of taking the game beyond New Zealand by tea. In fact they looked so assured that the only comfort to come New Zealand's way was a difficult chance from Thorpe to short-leg and Crawley having his helmet rattled by Allott.

To no one's surprise, given England's dominance at that point, the incident prompted a few passing pleasantries between the batsman and the New Zealand captain, Lee Germon. Germon dodged the issue later, saying saying he was "happier to leave anything on-field out on the field."

This is not the first time Germon has been cryptic, and some of his field settings, particularly to Stewart and Hussain, were strange to the point of naivety. However, what he lacks in tactical acumen he occasionally makes up for with his wicket-keeping and his stumping to get rid of Thorpe, when Patel turned one past the outside edge, was a slick piece of work. But although the sight of a spinning ball would have pleased the England dressing-room, it was also the moment when England sacrificed decisive momentum with the bat.

Without any addition to the score, Crawley, on 57, edged a cut off Doull to Germon. It was a rare false stroke to end a stylish and plucky contribution.

With a gathering afternoon wind behind him, Doull suddenly found his most persuasive length of the match, and with the scoreboard still stuck on 331, he had Robert Croft caught behind playing at one he might otherwise have left alone.

England had lost three wickets in 20 balls and with Dominic Cork again batting as if he was the nightwatchman in a timeless Test - repeating the sin of Auckland - any hope of Michael Atherton declaring before the close with a lead of 300 vanished. In the end, England had to settle for a lead of 259.

With 21 overs to bowl before the close, England ought to have made inroads. That they didn't was largely thanks to the care and attention the New Zealand openers suddenly decided to apply to their batting.

l Two heavy rain showers on the fourth morning and a worrying forecast frustrated England in their quest for victory, delaying the start of play.