Cricket: Gatting lacks attack

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YOUNG Middlesex players such as Mark Ramprakash are so starved of cricket this dripping summer that they play stickball with a plastic bat and a tennis ball in the short corridor behind the dressing-room.

Outside, the County Championship flag hangs limply on the flagpole. Inside, Middlesex have more time than they want to consider why they have only 15 points and share bottom place with Somerset.

Don Bennett, the team coach, has two reasons for this, both good. Rain, which washed out the third day of the game against Worcestershire yesterday, has had a critical impact on all four Championship games. Not that a full day's play would have brought Middlesex within sight of a win.

Worcestershire's first innings of 557 was the highest score in a county game at Lord's since the war, so what Middlesex wanted - besides saving the follow-on - was batting practice. They need it.

Desmond Haynes, for example, has scored 71 runs in five championship innings at an average of 14.25. Only Mike Gatting has scored consistently.

But, as Bennett points out, the other reason for Middlesex's poor start is that it is their bowlers who win championships. Unlike Essex, for instance, Middlesex are not very good at a run chase, as they showed last Tuesday when they fell 23 short of a reasonable target, losing nine wickets for 245 in 50 overs.

Middlesex's attack is a casualty of Philip Tufnell's turbulent private life; his troubles will keep him out of at least three more Championship games. The combination of Tufnell and John Emburey's off-spin was the single most important factor in winning the Championship.

Paul Weekes has performed manfully in Tufnell's place and Richard Johnson, aged 19, who bowled accurately enough to restrict Brian Lara's strokeplay when he scored 140 for Warwickshire, is very promising. However Angus Fraser has played only two games and the main wicket-taker is Neil Williams, who attracts adjectives such as steady and reliable.

But look at it this way: last year Middlesex got only 32 points from their first three games and then won 10 of the next 12. The memory of it makes Bennett smile, but he would not be wise to bet on it happening again in this rain- soaked season.