Cricket: Davies and Swann on song

Northamptonshire 509 Leicestershire 225-7
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IT HAS taken them all season to do so, but Northamptonshire at last appear to have cracked four-day Championship cricket. Having won their previous match, they are currently dominating this game against second-placed Leicestershire, who ended day two on 225 for 7, some 135 runs light of saving the follow-on.

The knowledge may have come in the nick of time for the home side. Indeed, should they take maximum points from this match and then win their final one against Glamorgan next week, they may yet avoid the anonymity bound to accompany the bottom nine counties beginning next season in the Second Division.

So far, both the means and theory have been classical - get a big score, and then bowl the opposition out twice. With a dry pitch getting dustier by the session, and with two hungry young spinners, Michael Davies and Graeme Swann, sharing all seven wickets between them, it is difficult to see the Running Foxes cheating the marauding pack.

Apart from getting the shine off the ball and giving Leicestershire's opening batsmen a start - the two Darrens, Maddy and Stevens, added 71 for the first wicket - seam bowling took a rare back seat as Swann and Davies, tourists this winter with England and England A respectively, spun a web of intrigue and doubt that only Aftab Habib looked capable of avoiding.

Habib batted two and a half hours for 51 before a lapse of judgement saw him become Davies' fourth victim when he padded up 10 minutes before the close of play.

He was not the only one to get a start, and both Stevens, Maddy and Iain Sutcliffe all had runs on the board when they fell to a mixture of the gormless and the gung-ho. Stevens, inconvenienced earlier after being struck on the head by Paul Taylor, skied a leg-side slog off Swann's third ball to Russell Warren at mid-wicket, while Maddy was bowled behind his legs at the other end, sweeping.

Even the normally adhesive Paul Nixon was forced into making an error after his captain, Vince Wells, missed a well-telegraphed arm ball from Swann, which was not only flatter and quicker but unerringly straight, too.

Playing spin on a turning pitch demands patience, technique and a modicum of luck, though by eschewing the first two, most of the batsmen became over-reliant on the last. That is not to say that the spinners did not deserve their success and Swann, with his new straighter run-up (brought in over the last month), kept a tight leash on those he wished to torment with his looping off-spin.

The pain for the visitors had began much earlier, though, when Northamptonshire reached 509, during which Sales added 22 to his overnight score before he was the seventh man out, bowled off-stump by Mike Kasprowicz for 205.

Going on to get "a big one", as the game's parlance has it, is a happy knack to have, and one Sales appears to have cracked, at least mentally. Although hitting the ball with certainty and power, he never once slogged, a trait England could do with, whatever the level.