England hit rocky outcrop

England on tour: Batsmen in a valley of despond among stunning mountains as South Africa looms on a far horizon
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The Independent Online

The snow-frosted mountains that provide the dramatic backdrop to this majestic ground are known as the Remarkables. Unfortunately for England, the batting on the opening day of their Test campaign of the winter was anything but, with new arrivals and old hands alike unable to cope with a pitch offering everything but an interest-free mortgage to bowlers able to hit the seam.

It was a chastening start in such stunning surroundings, made more sobering by the fact that Otago have lost their last seven first-class matches. But a hesistant foe, stuck between fight or flight on a pitch that perhaps demanded both, made Craig Pryor and left-armer David Sewell, the main wicket-takers as England slipped to 69 for 6, look like Richard Hadlee in his pomp.

Five years ago, concern over such a batting collapse would have been minimal, but modern tours have been compacted to a point where instead of five weeks to play yourself into form, you have four innings at most, which is why the sporty pitch coupled with the rain that allowed just 30 overs – enough for England to lose six wickets in making 82 – will be a worry. Getting used to the new reality means players must kick away the crutch of having to feel in form before they play Test cricket. It is a mental leap and one that Mark Butcher, who made a striking 20, alluded to when he spoke of "staying in the right frame of mind".

Butcher and his fellow Test specialists, Mark Ramprakash and Usman Afzaal, may have been suffering from the flat pitches in their last port of call, India. Indeed, Butcher, who conquered his reticence against spin there, says he cannot remember a ball swinging or seaming in two months. It did here as batsmen groped about hopefully like the prospectors who once panned the nearby rivers for gold.

Yet part of the problem may also have developed since India, and all the newcomers looked as if they were suffering from "indoor-net-itis", a syndrome that afflicts those who practise too much on fast, true, plastic pitches during the winter months. The old Essex captain, Keith Fletcher, would ban indoor nets for batsmen from March, reasoning that the green pitches in April would be a chastening experience for those used to hitting through the line of the ball. Had Nasser Hussain been present, rather than on a short break with his family, he would have recalled his old mentor's thoughts, as more than one batsman perished playing shots which would be only just acceptable on a shirtfront.

It was a good toss to win – the locals say always bowl first when there is snow on the peaks – and there are normally two ways to bat on a frisky pitch. One is to be cautious and try to wear down the bowler and draw him into rash experiment. The other is to be gung-ho and try to hit him off his line and length, a method no one adopted here with any vigour.

Marcus Trescothick tried the first but appeared to bore only himself, eventually perishing to an impatient drive off Sewell which he edged to first slip. The burly opener is captain here, which may help take his mind off the slump in form he is experiencing since arriving from India.

In contrast, given his two-month absence from the middle, Butcher cut a pleasing figure, hitting the ball cleanly, especially when driving. But for some superb fielding, three more boundaries would have been added to his tally, just the kind of feel-good factor that might have prevented him from trying to whip across the straight ball from Pryor that trapped him lbw.

With Sewell snaring Graham Thorpe, to a superbly plucked catch by Brendon McCullum above his head at second slip, Pryor quickly removed Ramprakash and Afzaal. With his sauntering approach, Pryor hits both pitch and seam hard, a combination that arguably made him the most dangerous bowler in the conditions.

Caught on the back foot, Ramprakash's middle stump was knocked back by one that nipped back sharply. Minutes later, Pryor found Afzaal's flashing blade with a ball that bounced from a good length, sending back the left-hander for a duck.

With The Lord of the Rings being filmed in these parts, the stage was set for a fairytale with the 6ft 5in Andrew Flintoff in the unlikely guise of Frodo Baggins. If there has been power but not much glory to Flintoff's batting of late, he can still change the impetus of a game, and opponents fear him. It began promisingly too, with some classic drives. But a brute of a ball from James McMillan, that bounced steeply and cut back into his gloves before lobbing to the keeper, cut short the fantasy.

As he trudged back, the heavy rain, turning to snow on the surrounding peaks, served as a reminder that England do not have much of this southern summer left to find their bearings for the Tests.

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