Cricket: Gatting going in the right direction

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The Independent Online
Hampshire 280

Middlesex 231-8

IF Keith Fletcher gets his way, Mike Gatting will be leading England in the Caribbean this winter. While this may be interpreted as a poor reflection of the number of eligible candidates, the fact is that the reformed rebel remains as astute a leader as any. That his bat is still as broad as any was confirmed here yesterday.

He will be none too distressed to be out of favour at present since this enables him to devote his energies to Middlesex. The most consistent of all contemporary English-born batsmen - no one else can command an average of 50 - he no longer butchers moderate attacks such as Hampshire's yet still averages more than 50 this summer.

He suffered a contentious leg-before ruling against Darren Flint's left-arm spin 16 short of a second century yesterday, having dwelt 27 overs over his last 30 runs after being dropped on 54, but the value of his innings, supplemented by a similarly dogged effort from Keith Brown, was considerable as Middlesex made a hash of things against seam and spin alike.

While Brown continues to make the most of his limited abilities, Mark Ramprakash has talent to burn and an apparent affinity for self-imolation. As his latest failure confirmed, the decline of the most gifted English batsman of his generation constitutes one of the more perplexing mysteries of the season.

A winter away from the game seemed just the ticket, providing a chance to reflect on recent misdemeanours and to stoke a waning appetite. The early portents, furthermore, were decidedly healthy, an accomplished 75 on a difficult pitch forming the basis of Middlesex's win over Gloucestershire in their opening Championship fixture. Runs subsequently flowed in the one-dayers, yet at the start of play yesterday Ramprakash had not bettered that score all term and was barely averaging 30.

Caught between the two stools of attrition and enterprise, he never looked like remedying the situation here. After six scoreless deliveries he presented the full face of the bat to Shaun Udal then saw the ball trickle back teasingly to dislodge the off-bail. For the fifth time in his last 10 innings he had fallen in single figures; were it not such a waste, one might have felt sorry for him.

It was easier to sympathise with Martin Thursfield during the formative stages of his career. Considered a good enough pace prospect while at Middlesex to tour New Zealand with the England under-19s in 1991, he sustained a broken leg there which severely retarded his progress. Clearly not the precious sort, he still insisted on bowling two more deliveries before being persuaded to leave the field.

Opportunities at Hampshire have been scarce but Malcolm Marshall's chest infection left a void here and Thursfield has filled it admirably, with bat as well as ball.

It was his unbeaten 36 that did most to drag the visitors from a pit of 216 for 8 and there were three wickets later in the day, testimony to a good deal of fire and brimstone. As Middlesex limp along with their own meagre seam reserves, the sense of a point being proved was unmistakable.

(Photograph omitted)