Cricket: Gooch puts matters beyond doubt

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Gloucestershire 236-7

Essex 240-4

Essex win by six wickets

GLOUCESTERSHIRE are not used to a crowd, or to popular expectations. Only Glamorgan have gone longer without winning a pot of some kind. Even their supporters' shout at Cheltenham - 'come on, Glos]' - sounded rustic and lacked conviction, as if dug from memory's attic.

Essex played in the expectation of winning a NatWest semi- final place, not merely in the hope of one. If Middlesex slip on Sunday's, Essex could still become the first county to win three titles in a season. It is a long shot, but they could do it if Graham Gooch scores a century every time he bats, which he has done in his last three innings for Essex, with that hundred at Headingley in between.

A capacity-plus crowd enjoyed the occasion and the sunshine, but the result was not seriously called into question once Essex had bowled restrictively at the outset: Gloucestershire scored one boundary in their first 20 overs. It is difficult to say exactly when, but gradually a cautious start turned into a failure to assert, a loss of confidence and initiative, and an aquiescence in letting Essex bowl. Neil Foster went straight through his stint in one go, before his knees stiffened up, and choked the innings like ground ivy.

To take off as far as it did, Gloucestershire's innings had to defy gravity, for they had no wickets-in-hand base from which to launch. Scoring 78 off their last 10 overs was a fine effort in these circumstances, a credit to Justin Vaughan, Gloucestershire's Hereford-born emigre, who has the cut of jib to be New Zealand's captain one day. Taking time off from doctoring, the left-hander hit 54 off 50 balls.

A single factor in Gloucestershire's favour was that the dry, firm pitch was loosening a little. Courtney Walsh's first ball, though a no-ball, exploded at Gooch and dollied upwards. Some four hours later, when 94, Gooch on-drove Walsh stratospherically for six and came near to skipping with delight. This was his ninth NatWest man of the match award, another of his records.

In between, if he lost a partner, Gooch focused on safety until the new one had played himself in. There was a run-out, after Stephenson had dropped the ball near his crease; Gooch called him for a single, and Stephenson did not respond. Gooch let Paul Prichard, at his fluent best, have his head and the strike, and dug in when Mark Waugh dragged on in his last innings and the outcome was momentarily in doubt.

Walsh bowled tremendously, but none of his colleagues could pressure the batsmen as Foster and his fellows had done, to the extent that Peter Such was not needed to bowl. Essex were always up to what was required of them, but then they usually are.