Cricket: Essex err on side of caution

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Essex 302-4

Nottinghamshire 249

IN KEEPING with Colchester's history of confrontation, a rare old battle is being staged at Castle Park. Essex, while Championship leaders, have lost their last two matches in the competition and cannot afford to lose again to such a challenging team as Nottinghamshire. The consequence yesterday was one of the dourer contests which Britain's oldest town has seen, as Essex ground out a lead of 53 runs.

A cloying surface, dampened by the week's rain, slowed proceedings to the extent that 56 runs were scored in the whole of yesterday morning. Only late in the day did Essex get their rate up to three an over, but this was not the slowness that stems from late season apathy, but the tautness of a crucial match, and never did the crowd of around 5,000 come near to expressing disenchantment.

Like the Norman keep of Colchester Castle on its hill, Graham Gooch dominates Essex's cricket with a similar massiveness. Yesterday, however, was not to see another century - it would have been the 98th of his first-class career - for he was dismissed in the first over of spin which Nottinghamshire bowled, leaving his younger charges to fend for themselves. Paul Prichard duly acquitted himself, firstly in a partnership of 130 in 50 overs with John Stephenson, then with some hitting of his own in the last hour.

Before Essex could reply, though, they had to tidy up Nottinghamshire's last two wickets, which they did for the addition of two runs. Stephenson finished with six wickets, a career-best before he began a painstaking, four- hour innings; and Adrian Brown took his fourth catch. There must be something in the Essex water, for they have produced the last three left-handed wicketkeepers in county cricket, David East, Neil Burns and Brown.

Mike Garnham, the man Brown is deputising for, gamely hopes to play later this week, after that frightful accident to his right eye, but a specialist has to check on a broken bone. Garnham's father lost an eye when keeping wicket, and the son thought the same when that outside edge hit his eyeball. 'But if I can survive that, I can survive anything,' Garnham said, and he is ready to get straight back on his bike.

Chris Lewis naturally put in a tidy spell at the England captain, wanting to survive the changes to be made to The Oval Test team for the Texaco party to be announced this morning. Graeme Hick and Neil Fairbrother will certainly return for the last three internationals, but reliable seamers are so thin on the ground that there must be a surprise or two in store, like Dominic Cork.

Mark Ilott is the other young pace bowler being widely canvassed. However, he has not been at his best this season after his spine injury; and the enthusiasm for him does seem to owe something to Home Counties bias. Simon Brown, of Durham, just turned 23, is a better left-armer at the moment, though Ilott may be as good by the time he is Brown's age.

Essex reached 45 from 23 overs of seam before Eddie Hemmings came on and Gooch was out. Here was a funny business, for Gooch appeared unready for Hemming's first ball, and some by-play followed, which included the bowler bowling the ball along the ground to the England captain. Perhaps Gooch lost concentration; he was undoubtedly furious with himself when later in the over he turned an off-break straight to backward short leg.

For a while thereafter the game was in equilibrium. What started its swing towards Essex was Stephenson using his feet to loft Hemmings straight for four and six in the over after lunch. Prichard preferred to cut and to drive from his crease, accelerating as he went until he reached a beautifully paced century in 226 minutes, and shortly afterwards led Essex into the lead.

If Nottinghamshire are to substantiate their title hopes, they will have to make more of Chris Cairns. In New Zealand last winter he was a fast if erratic bowler. Now his county have made him into a first-change medium pacer who has not gained in accuracy what he has lost in pace.

That is the English system of coaching bowlers for you, one which Waqar Younis has repudiated for being obsessed with line and length. Given a few more seasons in county cricket Waqar, if he listened, would probably be turned into a bowler of flat off- breaks.

(Photograph omitted)