Cricket: When you can't see the ball for the trees

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IT IS both ridiculous and pointless to make excuses for England's first innings performance in the Second Test, which put the side on the back foot. Figures were immediately trotted out on recent failures to make runs first up and about what is seeming to become an unfortunate sequence.

No excuses then, but nor should we forget the reasons and the context of a match. If we are obviously miles away from what the opposition are scoring then questions should be asked, but there are situations when it is not quite so clear-cut. The Lord's game is a case in point.

When we won the toss on Thursday there was some discussion about what the team should do. We all backed the idea of batting, bearing in mind the likelihood that it might brighten up later in the day and having to bat in the fourth innings. As it happened, some indifferent shots were played and I hold my hands up to the non-execution of one of them. Missing a full toss is not what you plan to do at Lord's in a Test match.

But it was dark out there. Four lights were on the board for much of the time and the ball was very hard to pick up. Anything above the sight screen at the Nursery End was coming out of the trees. The ball was moving about - not, it should be emphasised, anything like as much as it did at Edgbaston in the First Test where it might have been in a different country but enough to keep the bowlers interested.

New Zealand, in addition, bowled well. Dion Nash went for 25 in his first four overs but came back superbly, managing to go up the slope. It was a persistent exhibition of the seam bowler's art.

Two innings stood out for England in a low total. Alec Stewart went in under considerable pressure as opener and reached 50 from 58 balls. This was a splendid contribution considering the build-up to the match and the conditions in which he played. He hit forcing strokes, played his natural game, refused to be cowed and it worked. In view of what was to happen to later in the innings it was a good job he played as he did.

Nasser Hussain, our now sadly stricken captain, was the other man to make a half-century. He is playing as well at present as I can ever remember throughout his career. He is hitting bold, confident strokes and is leaving the ball with wonderful aplomb, absolutely sure of where his off-stump is. Nasser, too, became becalmed on the first afternoon, a sign perhaps of England's predicament, but also assuredly of conditions which made free scoring extremely difficult.

It was a huge pity that he broke a finger fielding yesterday. The side will miss him, naturally, and it is to be hoped his enforced absence will not also interrupt his flow of form.

In the sort of position in which England found themselves, remaining positive is crucial. The team has to stick together more than at any other time, boost each other, retain a good attitude. You can start worrying too much about dissecting technique. It is better to keep things very simple, to play to your strengths (as Alec Stewart did). If you get a full bunger, for instance, make sure you hit it over the sight screen.

It is a capricious game. There are so many opinions about it, not least in this country where the game is so comprehensively covered in a wide variety of newspapers, on television and radio, that they can undermine you. Constructive comment is always important because it helps you to improve but it is vital that the players are giving each other support.

England's bowlers came back well in circumstances much different from those in which the side batted. Andrew Caddick is in good form and a special mention should be reserved for Dean Headley. He has had a lean time at Kent this year but nobody has ever doubted his heart. How that paid off for him at Lord's on his return to Test cricket. Headley is a model example.

I ought to mention my own form. Of course, I could do with scoring some runs but I am keeping myself going by reflecting on the Test form I showed in the past year. Then, I reached a level of consistency and concentration. There has to come a time when you get low scores. That is the way I am looking at it.

New Zealand have proved themselves, as we expected if others did not, to be tough opposition. Matthew Horne, the opening batsman, epitomised their resolve. He was hurt by a ball from Caddick which hit him on the elbow. It limited his strokeplay but he gritted his teeth, showed immense guts, and reached a century. It was the sort of performance which draws respect from your opponents. The Kiwis played as Test cricket ought to be played, trying to grind us down into the dust.

England need some of that, of course. We know that. The experienced top five somehow has to shelter the inexperience at numbers six and seven. Aftab Habib and Chris Read are good players but they are at the start of their Test careers.

Of course, the general conclusion is that England are at Lord's again and look what has happened. I have decided that there is only one way to counter this. When people talk about a jinx or hoodoo for the hosts at headquarters it is clear that the only possible answer is to agree that there is.