Report by Neil Robinson 07/06/03
Another desperately poor first innings batting display from Zimbabwe in the Second Test, led them to a second consecutive innings defeat within three days and a ninth Test defeat on the trot. On a slow, flat, pitch offering only minimal lateral movement and occasional low bounce, the visitors followed Englandís solid, but far from spectacular total of 416 with a swift collapse on the second afternoon, which saw them limp into tea on 35 for 7. It was a sorry affair of crooked bats, leaden footwork and overwhelmed minds played out before a keen crowd who will have hoped for more of a contest in the first Test Match to be played in this region. Dismissed for 94 in the end, thanks to a gritty innings of 31 from Tatenda Taibu, Zimbabweís batsmen looked far more comfortable when they followed on 322 behind, the game well beyond them and all pressure off.
For England, it meant a satifying 2-0 series win forced by two highly professional performances, all the more pleasing for the inexperience of their bowling attack. Debutant Richard Johnson, preferred to the unfortunate James Kirtley, will have more cause than most to remember his first Test Match, striking a swift 24 off 14 balls at the end of Englandís innings before claiming wickets with his third and fourth balls in Test cricket on his way to remarkable debut figures of 12-4-33-6. With James Anderson and Stephen Harmison also performing well with the ball, England may well have entertained thoughts at tea on day 2 of finishing the game off without the need for a third day. As it was, a capacity Saturday crowd of 12,000 witnessed a game in prolonged death-throes, any hopes of a real contest long since extinguished.
Electing to bat first on a typical breezy North-Eastern day, England at first made light work of some inconsistent Zimbabwean bowling. The excellent Heath Streak and Ray Price apart, the visitors all struggled to cope with the flat pitch and a vicious wind howling in from the North Sea. England batted as if taking a gentle net, rarely troubled by bowling, which regularly offered too much width. They reached lunch on 96 for 1, the only loss being that of Michael Vaughan, who having reached 20 entirely in boundaries, let his confidence get the better of him and edged to the keeper when attempting a back foot forcing shot off Streak. Butcher and Trescothick continued their good form from Lordís and each looked to be heading for a big score until Trescothickís luck failed him. The big Somerset man missed a sweep at Price on 43, the ball glancing off his pad and rebounding from there to his glove and straight into Taibuís hands. It was hard luck on a man who appeared to have rediscovered his touch in this series, but who has now gone 21 Tests since his last hundred.
Butcher forged a promising partnership of 37 with Hussain, before playing on to Douglas Hondo. But, when Key almost immediately thrashed a long-hop straight to square leg, where Grant Flower took a fine low catch and then the same bowler produced a beauty, which Hussain edged to the keeper, England were suddenly looking rather wobbly at 156 for 5. Hondo, who in the morning session had looked as if he would struggle to make the average clubís second XI, had taken 3 wickets in 11 balls and was now mixing some genuine wicket-taking deliveries in with the dross. Zimbabweís body language, which had been poor all morning, now perked up, their bowling, which had improved in discipline ever since lunch, began to take on an extra bite. If they had been able to force another breakthrough at this point, the game may well have taken a very different course. But, England old and England new saw to it that no such breakthrough was to come.
When Heath Streak looks back at this series, he may concede that his major tactical error came in persisting with Hondo and Andy Blignaut when Alec Stewart was fresh at the crease. Stewart, as is well known, is far less comfortable when faced with spin before he has settled and Ray Price had produced just enough slow turn from an accurate line to suggest he might have troubled the England veteran. As it was, a series of handsome drives got Stewart away to a grand start, while at the other end Anthony McGrath dug in quietly and reinforced the good impression he had made on debut at Lordís. These two batted on together into the second day, assembling a partnership of 149 which took the game beyond the visitorsí grasp. Both had their moments of fortune, McGrath shelled by Price at long leg when hooking at Blignaut on 32, Stewart the recipient of an even more grievous let-off by Ervine at first-slip when he was completely turned around by a Streak jaffa on 56. Otherwise, both looked odds-on to reach three figures, until Streak trapped Stewart lbw for 68 with one that kept low early on day 2. Soon after, McGrath, frustrated by a miserly spell from Blignaut, fell in identical fashion to Vaughan for 81. Tougher tests lie ahead for this punchy Yorkshireman, who has a hint of Tim Robinson about him in defence and of Mike Gatting in attack, but his England career could hardly have got off to a better start.
If Zimbabwe thought they had created another opening and foresaw a swift end to the innings, they were sadly mistaken. Ashley Giles struck the ball cleanly for a second consecutive fifty. Richard Johnson hit his first ball in Test cricket through backward point for four, then swung Price over deep midwicket for six and generally proceeded to lay waste to all that Zimbabwe could throw at him during his brief innings. Harmison and Anderson hung around long enough to take the total past the 400 mark and rub the visitorsí noses in it. Streakís men trudged from the field 35 minutes after lunch looking already like defeated men.
A few minutes later they looked worse. Charging into the wind from the Lumley End, Johnsonís third ball nipped back off a length and struck Vermeulenís knee-roll in front of off-stump. 3 for 1. Johnsonís next ball was a fast yorker, which landed on Stuart Carlisleís toe straight in front of middle, the finger went up almost before the appeal and Johnson was within one ball of becoming the first man ever to take a hat-trick in his first over in Test cricket. That, at least, was denied him. The fifth ball of the over was a fraction too wide and Flower let it sail past without a shot. Years of back and knee problems have taken their toll of Johnsonís pace, but as he took his sweater and cap and headed down to the appreciative applause of the crowd on the long leg boundary, the injury-prone bowler looked most in danger of straining his facial muscles with the broad grin he wore on his face for the rest of the day.
Zimbabwe will have wished the fireworks had ended with that over. It was not to be. There followed a batting performance so abject, supine and technichally poor that one could only imagine they had seen the fearful figure of the famous ghost Lily stalking the battlements of Lumley Castle over Johnsonís shoulder. Dion Ebrahim was soon trapped lbw by Anderson, although the TV replay suggested an inside edge and he was quickly followed by Flower who edged a high catch to first slip off the same bowler. Johnson then produced a beauty to catch the outside edge of the left-hander Ervineís bat and give an easy catch to Stewart, before trapping Friend and Streak leg before in quick succession. Streak, who padded up playing no shot, clearly thought he had made enough ground outside off-stump, but his back foot was anchored well outside leg, so he was hit only fractionally outside the line. It was a misjudgement typical of Zimbabweís technical confusion. The crowd, getting into the spirit of the rout, chanted ďitís just like watching Durham!Ē
Johnson by now had captured 5 for 18 in 8 overs. His bowling was accurate, full in length and of a good pace, say that of a young Glenn McGrath, but he was far from unplayable. The pitch was so slow and the movement so limited that there were few dismissals where it was impossible to say that the batsman could have avoided it by a more solid technique. Englandís bowlers, to their credit, had identified the best way of bowling in these conditions and stuck to their plan rigidly. It was to be the same throughout this match. Anderson continued to show every bit of the promise he displayed in the winter, while Harmison, who had not bowled by this stage of the game, has worked hard on his action which now looks far less tangled and unbalanced. The transformation in his accuracy has been remarkable.
The Zimbabweans rallied after tea, thanks to a fighting innings by Taibu and Hussainís bizarre decision to rest Johnson and bowl Anderson into the still stiff wind. Taibu looked by far the most organised of the Zimbabwean batsmen, it is only to be hoped that the burdens of wicket-keeping, top order batting and the vice captaincy of a struggling side do not get on top of him as the Africans have the makings of a fine player here. Three unsuccessful overs from Anderson led to Johnsonís recall. Taibu now heaved two cracking pull shots through midwicket, then next ball overbalanced and fell across a straight one to become Johnsonís fifth lbw of the innings. Harmison, fast and accurate with the wind at his back, forced Blignaut to flip a short ball down to Anderson at long leg, then trapped Price lbw and Zimbabwe had to start all over again.
As at Lordís, Englandís bowlers made harder work of the Zimbabwean batting in the second innings. No doubt this was partly due to the inevitability of defeat removing some of the pressure and sense of panic from the visitorsí minds, but clearly the England bowlers had dropped down a touch in pace and intensity from the first innings. It is always preferable to see players performing at their best first time around, the inability to do this has been Andrew Caddickís greatest failing, but Englandís young bloods will need greater stamina against stronger opposition. In the 15 overs available before the close, England managed to capture only the wicket of Mark Vermeulen, slashing a full length delivery from Anderson to McGrath at point. Otherwise, Ebrahim and Carlisle batted nervelessly enough to close on 41 for 1, pleasing the Durham CCC officials above all, for whom a sell-out Saturday was an essential part of the maiden Test experience.
If the attendance figures on the first two days were a touch disappointing, on Saturday the rival tribes of the North-East, Geordies, Mackems and Smoggies, as well as visitors from farther afield, packed in to this attractive ground on a bright, warm day on which the wind had disappeared for a rare and precious rest. The only pity is they hadnít more competitive cricket to watch. Zimbabwe made England work harder for their last nine wickets, but the game retained its processional feel and there was never any real threat the hosts would be made to bat again. Zimbabwe built partnerships throughout the final day, but lost wickets with equal regularity and it was only ever a matter of time before England sealed their win.
Dion Ebrahim batted soundly for a second fifty of the series, a more convincing affair than his innings at Lordís, and crafted a plucky partnership with Carlisle for most of the morning. But, when Carlisle inside edged Anderson to Key at short-leg the wickets began to tumble. Ebrahim was adjudged lbw for the second time in the match, this time to Harmison for 55 and if the first decision against him was a mistake, this one also had its debatable side with the ball maybe edging past leg stump. Taibu was snaffled at bat-pad off Giles, then a period of spirited resistance from Ervine and Friend, notable for attractive straight driving from both men, was ended when Ervine played on to Harmison for 34. Streak was then tragically run out when Harmison dropped a return catch onto the stumps with him stranded well out of his ground.
Travis Friendís clinical strokeplay took the match into the evening session, but two overs after tea Hussain took the new ball and immediately, Blignaut, who was never comfortable against the rising ball, flipped a short one high over the bowlerís head where Hussain, dashing round from mid-off, took a superb sprawling catch. Harmison produced a snorter which Price could only glove to Stewart, then Hondo, perhaps expecting similar treatment, was beaten by a perfect off-stump yorker and the local lad Harmison had finished off the match. Friend, underused with the ball and batting far too low for his evident talent, remained undefeated on 65.
It was the first time England had achieved consecutive innings victories since Edgbaston and The Oval in 1985, the last Ashes win in England, but few would have been cheeky enough to suggest a similar standard of opposition. In truth, Zimbabwe were hopelessly outclassed by England. One can only wonder what Australia are going to do to Bangladesh in their forthcoming series. As the first Test Match ever to be held in the North-East, it was a significant occasion, but one slightly tarnished by the lack of a seriously competitive match. As things stand, the next Test scheduled for this ground will be in 2005, in all probability an early season game against Bangladesh. Durham CCC are lobbying hard for one of the Ashes Tests against Australia that year and it is easy to understand why. If there is an evangelical element to taking Test cricket into uncharted territory such as this, there has to be an argument for allocating prime selling matches to the new grounds. The minnows such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh simply do not draw the crowds, wherever the matches are played. The attendances for Australia v Bangladesh in Darwin and Cairns will be watched with great interest on these shores. Especially considering itís the first time such Test matches will have been played in these Northern regions of the land downunder.
Perhaps with more interest than the cricket itself. Over the past 11 years, Zimbabwe have generally competed well at Test level, but over such a period some improvement would have been expected, especially with the greatly increased number of matches available to a new Test playing nation in the modern era. However, largely because of political problems at home, Zimbabwean cricket seems to have actually regressed during the decade. And with the continuing erosion of their player base due to the emigration of talented youngsters, the prospects do not look good. Club cricket at domestic level has expanded greatly, but whether sufficient numbers of the Zimbabwean population have been converted to the game at this stage, remains to be seen. Certainly, some evidence of this will need to emerge within the next two or three years if Zimbabweís competitiveness at the highest level is to be assured.
For now, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh simply are not good enough to compete regularly at Test level. If rapid improvement is not shown within the next few years, we may reach a situation where the creation of a second tier of international first-class cricket, not accorded full Test status, ought to be created, with these two nations joined by Kenya, Canada and other hopefuls. Surely, winning the occasional one-day international is no way for the minor nations to improve standards. Perhaps, even without Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, this would be a good move anyway.
But, it is not all gloom and doom for Zimbabwe. They do have some good young players. Taibu and Friend stuck out particularly in this match, while Ebrahim will have won many admirers for his pluck and as long as Heath Streak is around, they will always have one dangerous bowler at least. They are more likely to prosper in one day cricket for the time being though and they have an immediate chance to prove that in the forthcoming NatWest triangular series which begins here on June 26th.
England 1st Innings, 416 runs (McGrath 81, Stewart 68, Giles 50, Streak 4-64) - Not required to bat for a second innings
Zimbabwe 1st Innings, 94 runs (Johnson 6-33)
Zimbabwe 2nd Innings, 253 runs (Friend 65*, Ebrahim 55, Anderson 4-55, Harmison 4-55)
England won by an innings and 69 runs
Man of the match: Richard Johnson
Men of the Series: Mark Butcher (England), Heath Streak (Zimbabwe)