Cricket: Bowlers suffer as Essex hit out

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Sussex 429-9 dec and 63-2

Essex 303-1 dec

IN THE first over after lunch at Southchurch Park yesterday, Tony Pigott unleashed a full-throated plea for leg-before against John Stephenson. By the time the roar had subsided into a forlorn whimper, Pigott was virtually on all fours and apparently willing to kiss the umpire's feet in a last- ditch attempt to swing the verdict.

Pigott was not alone in his frustration. For bowlers of every hue, this was a day for humility and supplication, the ball colliding with the perimeter hoardings as if pinged around a pinball machine. With dot balls an event and maidens a veritable Holy Grail, the concept of cricket as an equal contest between bat and ball was well and truly confounded. The culprit was clear. Three years ago one of the strips here was condemned as unsuitable; the determination to make amends has yielded one even less becoming.

The chief beneficiaries of an easy pitch were David Smith, Graham Gooch and Stephenson, three contrasting openers united by a propensity for chin-jutting defiance against the world's fastest bowlers. Gooch twirled the Sussex attack around his chunky little finger and duly thundered towards three figures with a chilling inevitability. At first, there was a cruel beauty about his remorseless appetite, not unlike watching Joe Louis wipe out one of his 'bums-of-the-month'. But the pleasure eventually dissolved into pity for the caterers, leaving a morass of skeletal statistics.

David Smith was the first to feast as Sussex made 88 in the first hour to complete a recovery from 73 for 4 to 429 for 9. Of these, the former England left-hander contributed a meaty 213, the first double-century of a 20-year career that has waxed and waned more than most.

Now revered as a venerable figure whose technical acumen is proving an invaluable source of education at Hove, the demon that once drove Smith to some unseemly acts at Surrey has long since been replaced by maturity.

Having rescued his third county on Friday, he shifted into celebratory mode yesterday, treating John Childs like a child as he swept past the unbeaten 189 he had fashioned for Worcestershire against Kent in 1984.

Striking 33 boundaries all told, he fell in the only conceivable manner, run out by Mark Waugh while ambling absent-mindedly for a single, punch-drunk by the heady brew of achievement.

Alan Wells declared soon after, his decision to bat on reflecting the paranoia over Essex's chasing abilities. Gooch zipped out of the blocks with two fours in Adrian Jones's opening over and kept on running, collecting thee boundaries in an over on four occasions and dominating the early laps to such a degree that by the end of a run- soaked morning session he had scored 51 to Stephenson's eight.

Gooch's response when Ian Salisbury entered the fray was intriguing. Baffled by the leg-spinner's initial offering, he groped at a couple more and for a while appeared reluctant to essay anything violent, either for fear of damaging the youngster's confidence or undermining his own faith in Salisbury's talent.

The ruthless streak soon resurfaced, however, and Salisbury was treated like everyone else. Mind you, he did have the last word by bowling Gooch behind his legs, albeit not before the latter had cruised imperiously to his third century of a so-so summer, 20 of his 93 balls having been smacked to the outer reaches.

The openers had flashed 171 from 35 overs when Gooch bade adieu, and by now Stephenson had emerged from his partner's coattails.

Outscoring Gooch after lunch, he acquired his hundred from 153 balls and was still entrenched when the declaration arrived, Essex happy to concede a lead of 126.

Mark Ilott soon sent Jamie Hall's stumps flying and Smith completed his second, rather less memorable double of the day when run out by Peter Such, supplying an odd twist to an otherwise predictable plot.

(Photograph omitted)