Cricket: Cowan lights Essex gloom

Essex 246 and 442-8 dec Hampshire 161 and 64-2 Match drawn
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Essex missed a trick yesterday, not on the field but off it. Tom Waits in a corner of the pavilion, washing the emptiness with that nicotine- filtered voice of his, would have set the scene on a day down on its luck. But he has probably been booked by the Conservative party.

Not that there were any losers here; the weather saw to that, condemning the match to a draw and robbing Essex of the opportunity to start their Championship season with a deserved victory. You could not honestly say the crowd was robbed of anything. There were fewer people here than you would see in the average Tom Waits kind of bar. But then you could hardly blame the absentees for staying away. It was one of those grey Chelmsford days when the lights glow beckoningly in the multi-storey car park across the river.

Yet for all that, play started on time with Essex looking for 10 wickets and Hampshire needing a mere 525 runs for victory. A cursory glance at the surrounding skies put the odds firmly on a draw, however, and so it proved. By 12.30, the rain was setting in and the players were coming off.

On the evidence of that hour and a half's play, the only batsman likely to stand between Essex and the 16 points for victory was Hampshire's Australian reject, Matthew Hayden. The tall Queensland left-hander may be a little restricted in all-round stroke play, but he was deceptively quick to pull anything short of a length, and his rasping drives through extra cover should make any purist purr. A front-foot four off Ashley Cowan early on had a lovely ring to it and could be his trade mark stroke this summer.

Cowan's bowling was just as impressive, however. From a short run, and with a smooth action, he bowls at a lively pace and when everything clicks he looks decidedly sharp. A winter in Nepal has kept him in tune and, as he himself admits, feeling more sure of his place in the Essex side has helped him become more relaxed. It shows. Essex have an asset in this young fast bowler, and with five wickets in the first innings here he has made promising inroads into his target of 60 to 70 wickets this season.

Ronnie Irani made the breakthrough Essex wanted just after midday, having Hampshire's captain, John Stephenson, leg before and ending his half-century stand with Hayden. Stephenson looked some way forward, but he had been riding his luck all morning and it was due to run out soon. Jason Laney was more unlucky on the eve of his 24th birthday, dragging an intended drive on to his stumps four overs into the morning.