The rain arrived in time and in sufficient quantity to rescue England - but not to save selectors Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting from public sacrifice. The knives were out for the two conservative grandees at the fourth-day dinner hosted by Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England Cricket Board, for coach-in-waiting Duncan Fletcher and the junta who were to lead the England team into the next millennium. However vehemently they denied rumours of a crisis meeting, the inner cabinet emerged having resolved that Gooch and Gatting had picked their last England team. It was logical, they said, to let Fletcher and touring captain Nasser Hussain have more say about the squad they would take to South Africa in the winter.
That logic was sound, but the timing insensitive. The sackings came too hot on the heels of the public and press outcry against the selection of an Old Trafford squad bearing the unmistakable stamp of the old pro playing for safety. England's response to demands for new blood was to restore Atherton and his dodgy back, Hick and his suspect temperament, and 35-year-old off-spinner Such. One of the few concessions to youth, Yorkshire's Silverwood, was, as usual, sent home before the big boys came out to play. Habib was dropped after two Tests, and Mullally omitted to fit in an extra spinner.
The day before the match, it was confirmed that Hussain's finger, broken at Lord's had not healed sufficiently for him to take part. Though there were seven players aged 30 or more in the side, including two former skippers, the captaincy was entrusted to Butcher, the youngest bar one, on the strength of his stand-in leadership of Surrey when Adam Hollioake was concentrating on the World Cup. Everything that could go wrong for Butcher did. He chose to bat first on a pitch that was obviously poor and expected to get worse. In fact, the relaid strip - the authorities had allocated the Test to Old Trafford against Lancashire's better judgment - was cooked to perfection by a perverse Manchester sun just in time for New Zealand's huge innings.
England, though, batted on a pudding. The bounce was low and could not be trusted. It did not encourage strokes, so they decided, with a depressing willingness and unanimity, not to attempt any. The luckless Butcher went early, leaving Atherton inhaling lungfuls of crisis-polluted air, which he has always found bracing. It was his first Test innings since he bagged a pair at Melbourne at Christmas. By taking no risks, attempting few shots and disdaining all but strollable singles, he took two and a quarter hours to make 11. He explained later that he was waiting for pace bowlers Cairns and Nash to tire. It might have been a heroic piece of judgment. Unfortunately, a break for rain kept them fresh.
New Zealand had dropped one of their fastest bowlers, Allott, but his replacement, that disarming trundler Harris, was not needed until the innings limped into the second day. No England batsman managed to up the tempo. Hick threatened it by hitting three fours, then got his bat and feet tangled and was leg-before to a Nash full toss. Ramprakash lingered into the second afternoon, making an unbeaten 69 - his highest home Test score - and protecting a tail which, though brighter and bushier than normal, only carried England to 199. For 72 minutes, Such hung around to achieve the second-longest duck in Test history, 29 minutes shorter than Allott's against South Africa in March. The Old Trafford crowd, by now grateful for small mercies, gave Such a rapturous standing ovation and received a sheepish wave of the bat in acknowledgement.
He had merely delayed a thorough good hiding. New Zealand, hurt by charges that they were colourless, not only amassed 496 for nine, but did it in style, underlining the fact that every one of their eleven had scored a first-class hundred. Horne and Fleming moved fluently into the thirties before Bell and Astle added 153 to put the game out of England's reach. Bell, playing only his fifth Test, had totalled 82 in the previous four, but doubled that as he matured before our eyes. His 83 occupied five and three-quarter hours, and the longer it went on the more it showed what can be achieved if you put enough faith in a 22-year-old.
Astle had long since silenced jibes about his rustic style. His 101 had everything England had been unable to muster - enterprise, improvisation and entertainment. So, next day, had McMillan's unbeaten 107, for which Ian Botham gave him the match award. Astle, McMillan and Cairns each cleared the boundary three times as England's four main bowlers all conceded over 100. Caddick looked the most likely to get a wicket, but the overall impotence of his attack left Butcher few options and not much hope. Halfway through, his weary troops looked collectively older than even their birth certificates admitted.
Fleming's declaration challenged England to survive five sessions. Although Butcher failed again, Atherton and Stewart put on 99 with much of their old assurance. Atherton was two short of his fifty when he swept at Vettori, and Astle grabbed the gently looping ball. Replays showed that it had hit Atherton above the elbow so, though he walked off muttering and shaking his head, nobody had the heart to accuse him of disturbing the peace. The rain returned as Thorpe came out to replace him, and ended play for the day. But that mistake by umpire Shepherd might have been crucial, as England started the final day still 179 behind. There was no play until 2 p.m., however, and although Stewart made a positive 83, he was not too unhappy when the weather cheated him of a hundred by closing in again after 24 overs.
Acid rain for New Zealand, certainly, but a welcome downpour for England. Some people, though, were left with the uneasy feeling that justice might be done before long.
Man of the Match: C. D. McMillan.
Attendance: 37,650; receipts: £597,118.
Close of play: First day, England 108-5 (Ramprakash 12*, Headley 1*); Second day, New Zealand 128-2 (Bell 31*, Astle 10*); Third day, New Zealand 399-6 (McMillan 58*, Cairns 29*); Fourth day, England 118-2 (Stewart 47*, Thorpe 0*).