Knight gives England reasons for optimism

England 199-3 v Matabeleland
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A timely century by Nick Knight against Matabeleland, scored in the last over of another rain-drenched day, will have given the England tourists a much needed fillip, in their faltering preparations for next week's internationals against Zimbabwe. Only another early dismissal for their captain, Michael Atherton, left them with cause for concern, on a damp day that saw England rattle up 199 for 3 from the 54 overs of play possible.

In the first-class cricket played so far on this tour, the England captain has faced 54 balls and scored 13 runs. Not ideal, but then Atherton is very much a big match performer, who saves his sapping levels of concentration almost exclusively for Test matches.

In truth, batting was never going to be easy after overnight rain and a 9.40am start on a freshly cut pitch. Having been put in, the England batsmen had to overcome some generous seam movement early on. Something Knight accomplished with watchful aplomb, before asserting himself as both ball and pitch lost their venom.

Starting his tally tentatively with an airy swat at Henry Olonga's bouncer, he soon progressed to the bold strokes that also define his paintings, though last Monday's effort - of Cecil Rhodes' grave in the Matopo hills -is, he insists, "staying in the bag''.

"I'm more positive in my attitude now," said Knight, who has now scored four hundreds in England colours over the last four months, including one in the Headingley Test against Pakistan where he batted at No 6.

"When I went to Warwickshire I got a lot of confidence out of what was going on there. I was encouraged to play my shots and I think I've developed a more attacking game which has worked for me."

Occasionally though, he is prone to attack when set and in command, and he was twice dropped on 68 and 78, after scything at off-side deliveries from the luckless Mpumelelo Mbangwa.

However, he was not the only bowler for Matabeleland who bowled well and Olonga troubled England with his new ball spell when he pitched the ball up. And three overs after winding Atherton with a lifter that thudded into his ribcage, he plucked the England skipper's middle stump out with a beauty, that swung late past the outside edge.

Olonga, who has a curious golden tinted fringe of junior dreadlocks, may well open the bowling in the first Test. He certainly looked more dangerous than Heath Streak, his new ball partner here, who is only recently recovered from flu as well as a long-term groin problem. On the evidence yesterday, Streak is having problems with his run-up and looks woefully short of match bowling in general.

Alec Stewart, no doubt startled by his comparatively late arrival at the crease in the fifth over, played almost as fluently as he did during the second half of last summer. At least he did until a flat-footed slash ended up in third slip's hands.

Olonga's attempts to unnerve the Surrey skipper with a flurry of bouncers - after an early throat ball sat him on his backside - were met with sublime disdain and were closely followed by the distinctive clang of cricket ball on rustproof boundary boards. A vital necessity when half an inch of rain can fall in a couple of hours turning dry outfield to marsh, as it did at Bulawayo Athletic club yesterday.

Thankfully as far as England's preparation was concerned, the ground dried enough for play to resume and a further 35 overs were possible. Enough time for Nasser Hussain to remind us of his thrilling off-side repertoire, even if a repeat of one handsomely struck cover driven boundary, found the edge, ending instead in the keeper's, Wayne James' gloves.

England are still not as convincing as they might be with the bat. But thanks to Knight's well-judged knock on a restless pitch, they are at last looking free of their condemned-men demeanour.

(First day of four; Matabeleland won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings

N V Knight not out 100

*M A Atherton b Olonga 4

A J Stewart c G J Whittall b Streak 39

N Hussain c James b Olonga 38

G P Thorpe not out 5

Extras (b1, lb4, w1, nb7) 13

Total (for 3, 54 overs) 199

Fall: 1-14, 2-100, 3-185.

To bat: J P Crawley, R C Irani, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Olonga 10-2-42-2; Streak 10-1-39-1; G J Whittall 8-3-16-0; Mbangwa 13-2-46-0; Rennie 4-0-17-0; Vaghmaria 3-0-9-0; A R Whittall 6-1-25-0.

MATABELELAND: G J Whittall, M H Dekker, M Ranchod, D Vaghmaria W R James, M D Abrams, *J A Rennie, H H Streak H K Olonga, A R Whittall, M Mbangwa.

Umpires: R Tiffin and C Coventry.