Test cricket officially arrived in the North East when the scoreboard clock hit 10.45 at the Riverside. Seven and a half hours later, however, England were indebted to their most experienced player, Alec Stewart, and a new recruit, Anthony McGrath, for ensuring the first day of Test cricket at Durham will not be remembered for all the wrong reasons. In an unbeaten partnership of 142 the pair initially moved England out of strife and then into the relatively strong position of 298-5 in the first day's play of the second Test.
Indeed, until Stewart and McGrath arrived at the crease, many in the disappointing crowd of 9,000 felt the movement of the clock's hands had been the best timed stroke of the day. That Nasser Hussain's side were in such trouble against an efficient but tame Zimbabwe attack said more about the attitude of England's top order batsmen than the quality of the tourists' bowling.
After being dismissed for 18 Hussain had a face like thunder sitting on the England balcony as he watched Stewart and McGrath repair the damage created by himself and his haphazard colleagues. By the close of play the grimace had turned to a smile but the England captain had every right to be irate. Before the start of this game he had warned his side of the consequences of being complacent and this would be the best way of describing the manner in which England lost four of their first five wickets.
Only Marcus Trescothick can consider himself unfortunate, when on 43, he missed a sweep shot. The ball, after hitting the pad of the Somerset opener, caught the back of a glove on his follow-through and fell into the grateful hands of Tatenda Taibu behind the stumps. The other four were guilty of attacking balls not quite there for the stroke.
Whether it was over confidence, lack of form, disrespect of the opposition or a combination of all three, it is something the England coach will be looking at closely. Duncan Fletcher, who decides whether these players play county cricket during the weeks between Test matches, will know that even though England moved themselves out of trouble such carelessness against better teams than Zimbabwe will prove far more costly. Trescothick, Michael Vaughan (whose innings of 20 contained five fours), Mark Butcher, Robert Key and Hussain all looked rusty. Resting bowlers is all well and good but batsmen need time in the middle, not the nets.
Stewart, however, looked in wonderful form the moment he arrived at the crease. His first scoring shot was an edge down to third man for three, but this was followed by four cracking boundaries in the first 13 balls he faced. The fourth of these, a clip through square leg, took Stewart past the 19 runs he required to move ahead of David Gower - 8,231 runs - and into second place on the list of England run scorers. With only Graham Gooch now ahead of him on 8,900, the 40 year old has all the motivation he needs to keep his wonderful career going for that little bit longer.
The "Gaffer" had one life, when he was dropped at first slip by Sean Ervine off the luckless Heath Streak on 54, but other than this he played with his usual grace. Streak probably missed a trick when Stewart first arrived at the crease. Douglas Hondo had just taken three quick wickets, which was a surprise to everyone after his wayward first spell, and Andy Blignaut was brought on to ram the advantage home. Blignaut is the tourists' fastest bowler but his introduction was a mistake. There is nothing Stewart enjoys more than to start an innings facing pace. It was only when Ray Price was brought back on that Zimbabwe regained control.
Looking at home against both spin and pace McGrath gave Stewart excellent support at the start of his innings, then moved up a gear before the close. Like his partner McGrath was dropped but the chance given to Price at fine-leg was difficult. His innings was even more impressive than the one at Lord's, on debut, a fortnight ago. To walk out with only 156 on the board and play with such authority speaks volumes for his temperament. On 68 not out the 27 year old has an excellent chance of knocking up his first Test century this morning. On a slow low pitch that is already taking spin Zimbabwe's bowlers will regret allowing a good position slip away. With it probably went the series.
Chester-le-Street; England won toss
ENGLAND - First innings
M E Trescothick c Taibu b Price 43 148 mins, 106 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
M P Vaughan c Ervine b Streak 20 65 mins, 33 balls, 5 fours
M P Butcher b Hondo 47 148 mins, 116 balls, 7 fours
*N Hussain c Taibu b Hondo 18 82 mins, 54 balls, 2 fours, 1 six
R W T Key c Flower b Hondo (TV replay) 4 11 mins, 5 balls, 1 four
ÝA J Stewart not out 67 168 mins, 124 balls, 11 fours
A McGrath not out 68 163 mins, 121 balls, 8 fours, 1 six
Extras (b1, lb4, w7, nb19) 31
Total (for 5, 395 mins, 90 overs) 298
Fall: 1-49 (Vaughan); 2-109 (Trescothick); 3-146 (Butcher); 4-152 (Key); 5-156 (Hussain).
To bat: A F Giles, R L Johnson, S J Harmison, J M Anderson.
Bowling: Streak 22-5-50-1 (nb2, w1) (3-0-6-0 6-2-9-1 5-2-9-0 4-1-11-0 4-0-15-0); Blignaut 17-3-67-0 (nb8) (5-2-20-0 7-0-29-0 5-1-18-0); Hondo 16-1-66-3 (nb8, w6) (4-1-15-0 5-0-19-3 5-0-14-0 2-0-18-0); Ervine 3-0-17-0 (one spell); Price 27-7-62-1 (14-3-36-1 13-4-26-0); Friend 4-0-26-0 (nb1) (3-0-17-0 1-0-9-0); Flower 1-0-5-0.
Progress: 50: 68 mins, 14 overs. Lunch: 96-1 (Trescothick 36, Butcher 27) 28 overs. 100: 128 mins, 29.2 overs. 150: 223 mins, 50.1 overs. Tea 173-5 (Stewart 17, McGrath 1) 53 overs. 200: 283 mins, 62.5 overs. 250: 358 mins, 81.4 overs. New ball taken after 83 overs at 255-5.
Stewart 50: 123 mins, 99 balls, 8 fours. McGrath 50: 139 mins, 101 balls, 6 fours, 1 six.
Zimbabwe: D D Ebrahim, M A Vermeulen, S V Carlisle, G W Flower, ÝT Taibu, S M Ervine, *H H Streak, A M Blignaut, T J Friend, R W Price, D T Hondo.
Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and D L Orchard (SA)
TV Replay Umpire: P Willey (Eng)
Match Referee: C H Lloyd (WI).