EXPERIENCE is the key to the County Championship, and the cannier spectators arrived for the opening day with mufflers, anoraks and flasks full of Bovril. In fact, it was all shirtsleeves and queues around the ice-cream van, which may suggest the four-day format has the approval of an even higher authority than the Test and County Cricket Board.
However, the gatemen were soon muttering about the pace of play. There might, of course, have been more animation had it been Hampshire batting rather than Somerset, and given that the pitch appeared to have been prepared with embalming fluid, the entertainment quotient was by no means unacceptable.
Somerset, for the first time since the heady days of Botham, Richards and Garner, have been quietly touted to win something this season, although they are not getting carried away by the publicity, partly due to the fact that Taunton Town FC generally receive more column inches in the Somerset County Gazette.
It is also said that the most publicity-shy player in their team is their 21- year-old opening batsman, Mark Lathwell, in which case he should be told he is not quite going about things the right way. Partly due to England's winter debacle, he is already being touted as a Test player this summer, and Keith Fletcher will have made several complimentary jottings in his notebook yesterday. 'Confident, well- organised, beautiful timing, clean shaven', that sort of thing. The manager will also have been hard pressed to write down 'too old'.
Lathwell, as you might expect of an accomplished darts player, is stockily built, and when he chooses to hook - as he did twice off consecutive balls from Kevin Shine - the advertising boards take a fair old dent.
However, it is his exquisite timing that really catches the eye, as it did with the young David Gower. Incidentally, Gower's ambitions to reclaim his England place this summer led to his being spotted in the nets before 10 o'clock. The sun was beating down, but it was no mirage.
One of the few successes for England's A side in Australia, Lathwell passed 50 a dozen times last summer, but only once did he reach three figures. Yesterday he was out for 99 when he attempted to work an onside single off Shaun Udal, and was well caught off a leading edge by the diving Tony Middleton at mid-wicket.
With Hampshire's wicketkeeper Adrian Aymes receiving even Malcolm Marshall deliveries around his ankles, there was plenty of work for the spinners, although it was Cardigan Connor who claimed three of the five wickets, and Marshall's first delivery with the second new ball was too rapid for Richard Harden, who chopped on playing back.
Harden was the first of Somerset's two other major players, making an efficient 97 in a shade under four hours, and with the left-handed Nick Folland scoring an attractive 82, Somerset's middle order has a solid look about it this season.
Hampshire in general, and Connor in particular, stuck at it well, and Paul Terry's hands remain among the safest in the business. However, they do not look quite as jaunty as they did at the start of last summer, when they led the Championship going into July, and finished last but three.
They look a bit thin on batting when Robin Smith is absent, as he was yesterday after a fielding accident on Tuesday that left him with 18 stitches in his eyebrow, and will be again for large chunks of the summer, when the likes of Merv Hughes will doubtless be aiming not too far below his current injury.
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