Cricket: Grayson's century grabs the initiative

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The Independent Online
Essex 327-7 v Hampshire

WHEN THINGS finally stuttered damply into life 24 hours later than scheduled, the festival feeling was not exactly obvious. The skies were still leaden, bulging with menace, something that the Essex upper order lacked.

If it had not been for Paul Grayson, with his first Championship hundred for two years and the highest score of his career, and a lively contribution from the in-form Stuart Law, then the Essex first innings could have ended in a sorry tale. As it was the pair applied themselves diligently and prevented a Valentine's Park massacre.

The Hampshire attack is no pushover. They have bowled out sides regularly this summer, four times claiming maximum points. Essex in contrast have yet to pick up their top whack with the bat. They had passed 300 only twice prior to yesterday's efforts and only one of those was a first-innings knock so Grayson's contribution was all the more crucial. Only a declaration is likely to deprive them of their first maximum haul of the season.

Hampshire were certainly made to work hard all day although the pitch had something to offer bat and ball. And, as befits the Championship leaders, Hampshire made early inroads - once play got under way, that is. There were three lights showing before a ball had been bowled, thus delaying the start, and two further light showers later on interrupted proceedings and then forced an early lunch by which time Essex had lost Darren Robinson and their captain, Nasser Hussain.

Both men fell to Nixon McLean, Robinson unwisely as it turned out choosing to leave alone a delivery which moved back enough to skim his off bail and Hussain obligingly shuffling across his stumps to a similar delivery.

Thankfully, Grayson and Law stabilised things. The Australian in particular made batting look ridiculously easy at times. His timing was exquisite, his touch that of iron in velvet as the ball flew to the boundary with increasing frequency.

At one point he threatened to storm his way to yet another hundred (he had hit three in his last four Championship innings). Fortunately for Hampshire, Law's ambition got the better of him and, when he attempted a leg-side flick, the Hampshire wicket-keeper, Adrian Aymes, took a smart catch to give Simon Renshaw the first of his three deserved wickets. Law had still passed 50 for the fifth time in six innings.

Grayson, who had contributed just 24 runs to that third-wicket stand of 85, took up the cudgels. He lost Ronnie Irani and Tim Walton before too long but then settled down in a productive partnership with the wicket- keeper, Barry Hyam. It yielded 78 runs, although Hyam did not stay long enough to witness Grayson reaching three figures. It was the Yorkshireman's fifth first class hundred and his fourth since joining Essex in 1996. By the close he had gone on to an unbeaten 144.