Cold wind of change sets up final day

Cricket: Hampshire 539 and 135-7 Essex 432
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The Independent Online
Considering the continuing need for mufflers and mittens, it was a positively jaunty affair at Southampton yesterday. The runs which have marked a freezing start to the season continued initially to flow through a biting wind before wickets began to tumble with equal rapidity. It was in that respect a day of balance, a state which may not now apply to the match.

After a brisk morning session, Essex lost their last six first-innings wickets for 26 runs to be left with a deficit of 106. Hampshire's reply teetered into something approaching collapse, partly of their own making and partly through Peter Such's offspin (he had five for 19 off 16 overs in the final session).

This pitch may yet be testimony to the art of preparing a surface that makes batting somewhat more difficult as the match goes on, and bowling less so. Some of the batsmen's profits so far this season have been accrued partly against men more concerned about getting their next bowl of soup as opposed to their next bowl. Yesterday was the turn of Essex.

For most of the morning and the first half-hour of the afternoon it seemed as though they would achieve something close to parity. Graham Gooch added only nine to what was either the 120th or 121st century of his career, depending on whether you go along with the ICC adjudicators or Wisden , when he was bowled by Winston Benjamin.

This merely encouraged Stuart Law. The Essex acquisition from Queensland batted as Australians do, quick on the drive and swift to make all but the best bowling seem more modest than perhaps it is. He had reached 143 from 190 balls, which included three sixes and 19 fours, when Benjamin, with the new ball, hurried his departure through a back foot defensive stroke. Benjamin found two more like it from the same supplier.

It was still not evident that there was anything untoward with the surface, and indifferent batting seemed indeed to be the main cause of the sharp close to the innings as Hampshire began to enhance their lead. Under the watery sunshine this appeared to be no trouble at first. Both John Stephenson, no doubt at this point enjoying his first skirmish as a captain against his former county, and Jason Laney played some attacking strokes. They reached 62 without any fuss.

The declaration some time tomorrow loomed. For the Essex captain, Paul Prichard, this was unwanted. He had inserted Hampshire and needed some quick second-innings rewards. Eventually they came in a rush. The openers fell to catches around the wicket, one on the leg side and the other on the off.

It was salutary to watch Robin Smith playing. Spin has been his undoing so often, and he played a shot of veritable uncertainty against a disguised yorker from the former but unheralded Yorkshire player Paul Grayson which undid him. The catch by Nasser at slip that removed Sean Morris was from the top drawer.

But the batting was leaden and became suicidal, as the run-out of first- innings century-maker Adrian Aymes typified. A target of 250 some time tomorrow may provide a searching examination if the pitch begins to take some turn, and the charm of a four-day match which goes into the fourth day with the prospect of a finish is not to be underrated.

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