Cricket: Gooch whets Test appetite

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The Independent Online
Essex 357-9 v Pakistanis

In the corresponding match against the Pakistanis five years ago, Graham Gooch made a pair, and for much of that season his supporters despaired of his scoring heavily again. Happily for Essex and England, those black days are long behind him, and yesterday he made amends for his failure in 1987 with a chanceless hundred. The 97th of his career, it was the fourth in his last five first-class innings, and England will hope this golden summer form runs on into the Oval Test this week.

Whereas at Headingley last week Gooch batted with grim determination to help England square the series, yesterday, on his home patch, he played with an almost indulgent freedom. An introspective period in mid-morning kept him in the 40s for 48 minutes, but once he was past 50, the runs flowed in a fashion that had the near-capacity crowd purring in appreciation.

A roll of the wrists sped the ball square past cover, and a swat through midwicket reduced Wasim Akram to ordinary. The most casual of dabs sent a rising ball from Nadeed Anjum racing to the third man boundary, an upright sweep dismissed Mushtaq Ahmed to midwicket, and in the 277 minutes before he lofted the ball to mid-off, immediately after tea, his driving was magisterial. His 141 included 21 fours and came off 221 balls.

The Pakistanis, looking for the eighth win against the counties, which will give them the Tetley Bitter bonus of pounds 50,000, must have known they were in for a long day in the field when Gooch won the toss.

The pitch looked near-perfect for batting, the outfield was fast, and a whisper of breeze promised relief.

Moreover, with Waqar Younis sitting this game out, and Aqib Javed struggling to regain fitness, they were playing only the tireless Akram and Mushtaq from their best attack. In the circumstances, they could ill-afford to drop John Stephenson at second slip before he scored, and Jonathan Lewis at silly point when he was 3. The culprit both times, Zahid Fazal, was one of five in yesterday's side who had played in a charity match for Imran Khan's cancer hospital appeal at Middlesbrough on Friday. It was hardly surprising, then, that their late-night arrival in Essex found occasional expression in the tourists' fielding.

A variety of injuries prevented Essex from fielding their strongest side, but by playing Mike Garnham as a batsman they were able to give last year's Young England wicketkeeper, Robert Rollins, his first-class debut. Gooch and Stephenson provided their side with an excellent start of 99 by the 24th over, with Stephenson getting them to within a run of their century partnership by thumping Mushtaq's first delivery for six over long-on into the River Can. Two balls later he drove at the little leg-spinner's googly and was bowled off-stump.

Later in the afternoon, Nadeem Shahid also played fluently, batting over three hours for his unbeaten 86.