Croft papers over the England cracks

FIRST TEST: Glamorgan spinner takes three wickets to spare his team's blushes as Zimbabwe's captain leads by example Zimbabwe 256-6 v England
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Until yesterday, Michael Atherton must have felt a bit like the African dung beetle that spends all its time rolling huge balls of debris around in Sisyphus-like futility. But just as Zimbabwe threatened to make one man's burden intolerable, along comes a chirpy Welsh sparrow called Robert Croft. An off-spinner whose flight and fight have added levity to the visitors' cause, and ensured, on a day when England started poorly, that honours are even.

Croft, now 26, and appearing in only his second Test, already looks like the old stager England's assistant coach, John Emburey, became after more than half a dozen years in the role. Emburey quickly paid tribute to the way Croft found the optimum pace to bowl his off-breaks, in light of the slow pitch conditions.

As this usually meant giving the ball plenty of air, it was presumably slower than normal, which allowed the ball to grip and turn, though not extravagantly - something that may happen as the pitch and match wear on. It is a prospect the Glamorgan spinner is already relishing and after first day figures that read 29-12-45-3 he has every reason to feel more confident than England's batsmen will do too, should Paul Strang's leg- breaks begin to bite.

In any case, four more wickets are needed before England take strike, and Zimbabwe, who bat a long way down, are quite capable of adding at least another hundred runs to their overnight score.

Croft apart, there was very little else to crow about, as the tourists conceded almost a hundred runs a session up until tea. Afterwards, England's coach, David Lloyd, felt that after a "poor morning" the team had responded to some "harsh lunchtime words" from Atherton. A dressing-down that he must have delivered in Welsh, for all the immediate effect it had, and it was not until after tea that England looked a team in control.

As expected, the home side's war of propaganda came to an end when the coin came down in their favour and all talk of fielding evaporated into cloudless skies. Instead, it was England, with Chris Silverwood preferred to Andy Caddick as the third seamer, who had to head out to bowl under a burning sun.

Success was instant - in terms of five-day matches - but ultimately uninspiring, as Darren Gough struck with his third ball of the morning. It was Gough's first Test wicket for 18 months - since the Lord's Test of 1995 to be precise - and it owed much to John Crawley's sharp reaction catch at short- leg, as the ball flew quickly from the inside-edge of Stuart Carlisle's thrusting bat.

Zimbabwe's opening pair have a reputation for being stodgier than "sadza" - a glue like staple made from maizemeal - and parting them before the new ball had dulled was the perfect opportunity for England to get at their strokeplaying middle-order before the ball softened. Woefully, length and direction took a downturn.

Alastair Campbell, batting as if the burdens of captaincy were as helium to Atherton's lead weight, struck the ball with great authority, taking regular boundaries from England's profligacy, as Alan Mullally, and the understandably nervy debutant Silverwood, strayed from the business areas of this slow pitch.

Silverwood, that monolithic first Test wicket claimed when he had Grant Flower brilliantly caught by Nasser Hussain diving to his left at fourth slip, eventually settled. Later he took the second new ball in front of Mullally, a brave captaincy decision considering he had been conceding around five runs per over.

Like the magnificent Graeme Pollock, the left-handed Campbell tends to favour the front foot, yet is equally quick to punish anything short with a crunching assortment of pulls and cuts. Together with Grant Flower, he put on 127 for the second wicket.

His fifty took 70 balls, and was quick by Test standards, containing nine fours. A boundary count that was stemmed with the introduction of Robert Croft, who eventually snared the Zimbabwe skipper, luring him into an injudicious lofted drive that ended up in Silverwood's hands at backward cover.

Zimbabwe then showed their inexperience by allowing England back into the game that Andy Flower and Dave Houghton had all but closed them out of with a partnership worth 70 at tea.

Apart from being a good player of spin, Houghton is a notoriously poor starter after any kind of break and Zimbabwe's most experienced player soon fell to Croft, the victim of a lazy offside push that found its way into Alec Stewart's gloves.

His departure brought the game's second debutant, Andy Waller, a 37-year- old veteran one-day player, whose heroics as an opener last Sunday were not matched in the middle-order as he became Croft's third victim.

By now, Tufnell, operating in tandem with Croft, slowed Zimbabwe's rapid earlier progress although Andy Flower, batting with unaccustomed resolve, reached his fifty with a lovely lofted drive for four off the Middlesex left-armer.

With the new ball taken, Silverwood added a second wicket to his tally, allowing England to finish in better shape than they deserved.

Bulawayo scoreboard

Zimbabwe won toss

ZIMBABWE - First Innings

G W Flower c Hussain b Silverwood 43

(151 min, 100 balls, 5 fours)

S V Carlisle c Crawley b Gough 0

(6 min, 3 balls)

*A D R Campbell c Silverwood b Croft 84

(156 min, 136 balls, 13 fours)

D L Houghton c Stewart b Croft 34

(98 min, 60 balls, 3 fours, 1 six)

A Flower not out 58

(199 min, 174 balls, 7 fours)

A C Waller c Crawley b Croft 15

(52 min, 47 balls, 1 four)

G J Whittall c Atherton b Silverwood 7

(37 min, 30 balls, 1 four)

P A Strang not out 0

(18 min, 14 balls)

Extras (lb2 w2 nb11) 15

Total (for 6, 364 min, 92 overs) 256

Fall: 1-3 (Carlisle) 2-130 (G Flower) 3-136 (Campbell) 4-206 (Houghton) 5-235 (Waller) 6-252 (Whittall).

To bat: H H Streak, B C Strang, H K Olonga.

Bowling: Mullally 14-3-43-0 (nb1 w1) (5-1-19-0, 3-1-11-0, 4-0-9-0, 2- 1-4-0); Gough 21-4-70-1 (nb5 w1) (6-3-13-1, 4-0-16-0, 5-1-16-0, 4-0-15- 0, 2-0-10-0); Silverwood 13-4-50-2 (nb5) (4-0-25-0, 6-1-25-1, 3-3-0-1); Croft 29-12-45-3 (5-1-16-0, 11-4-22-1, 12-6-7-2, 1-1-0-0); Tufnell 15- 2-46-0 (nb1) (3-0-8-0, 4-0-19-0, 8-2-19-0).

Progress: 50: 71 min, 16.3 overs. 100: 114 min, 27.4 overs. Lunch: 109- 1 (G Flower 34, Campbell 70) 30 overs. 150: 177 min, 42.5 overs. 200: 244 min, 60 overs. Tea: 200-3 (Houghton 33, A Flower 31) 60 overs. New ball taken after 84 overs at 242-5. 250: 338 min, 86 overs.

Campbell's 50: 74 min , 72 balls, 9 fours.

A Flower's 50: 153 min , 139 balls, 6 fours.

ENGLAND: *M A Atherton, N V Knight, A J Stewart, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, C E W Silverwood, P C R Tufnell.

Umpires: R S Dunne and I D Robinson. TV replay umpire: R B Tiffin.

Match referee: Hanumant Singh.