MUCH as New Zealand like to play on the status of underdogs in the justified belief it draws the team together, there has been a grave danger on this tour that they have been overdoing it. Three poor performances in succession against county sides have given the impression they will be no more useful to England as warm-up opponents for the impending South Africans as were all those glass-chinned, rubber-legged turkeys Frank Bruno fought before his Mike Tyson bout.
But yesterday, as they enjoyed their first good day of the tour, New Zealand suggested that England may, after all, have a contest on their hands. With the ball, Danny Morrison, who, having taken close to twice as many Test wickets as his team-mates combined, is their key bowler, made a relatively successful comeback from injury. With the bat, Stephen Fleming, billed as New Zealand's most promising young batsman since Martin Crowe emerged, scored an unbeaten 118.
Fleming and Gavin Larsen added 94 without loss in the morning, allowing Ken Rutherford to declare shortly before lunch and Morrison to bowl Mike Roseberry before the break. Morrison, who later added the wicket of Jason Pooley, caught in the slips, bowled 13 overs in his first outing since tearing a groin muscle in Sharjah on the way here. He did confess to some soreness, but is expected to be fit to bowl in the second innings.
As Middlesex slipped to 62 for 4, Mike Gatting, despite the presence of the England manager, Keith Fletcher, and the captain, Mike Atherton, slipped further down the order. Perhaps he felt he could not compete with news from Chelmsford. More likely, it was his customary desire to allow Middlesex practice. Only John Carr and Keith Brown, with an unbroken 94-run partnership, took the chance before Gatting declared 93 runs behind.
In the 16 overs available, the Kiwis stretched their lead to 127 for the loss of Bryan Young, leg before to Richard Johnson. The 19-year-old seamer should have added the wicket of Mark Greatbatch, who was twice dropped off him by Roseberry at second slip. It was an impressive spell from the teenager, fully supporting the belief of the England Under-19 coach, Graham Saville, that he is one of the brightest prospects in the country. Greatbatch, meanwhile, must make the most today of his reprieves if he is to retain his Test place.