Cricket: Hick in prime on time

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The Independent Online
Worcestershire 381 and 285-3 dec; Essex 262 and 15-0

WITH the sun shining, the County Ground at Worcester is one of those idyllic English settings, where even the Bradman centuries of yore were always destined to take second place to the view of the cathedral and the legendary teas.

These days, the pitch has largely seen off the centurions, though Gooch, Graeme Hick and Tom Moody have all scored one here, the spite present earlier in the game presumably being sapped by eight hours of sunshine. It was only Hick's second century off Essex in the Championship and its clinical savagery, against a weakened Essex attack, has now put Worcestershire firmly in charge of this match, Essex needing 390 runs for victory.

It was Hick's 50th hundred in the Championship and the 74th of his first-class career. Perhaps missing out against New Zealand has made him nervous for his place. With John Crawley and Graham Thorpe both in fine form he obviously wanted to stay in the frame, and all the Essex bowlers suffered.

None more so than his England colleague Peter Such, whose latest ploy of bowling his off-breaks wide of the stumps merely fuelled Hick's boundary count as he raced to a 48-ball 50 with a glorious straight drive off John Stephenson. More was to follow as he took 14 runs from three consecutive balls off the tiring Stephenson. The first, a pull over mid-wicket that landed on the roof of a sponsor's tent, was followed by a snick past wide slip and another straight drive back past the bowler.

All this came after a cautious start which saw Tim Curtis bowled off an inside edge and Philip Weston adjudged lbw, Worcestershire were in need of some impetus and Hick and Moody duly obliged with a century stand in 17 overs. Moody, who is no slouch with the bat, was left in Hick's wake, and by tea, Essex's chances of keeping a manageable total in sight were fast receding.

Soon after reaching his century, Hick was out lbw to Stephenson, playing back and across the line to a ball that kept low. With Moody picking up his first century of the season with some flat-batted swathes through the covers, Worcestershire declared 15 minutes before the close with Moody undefeated on 108.

So far this season, Essex have confounded a lot of people with their strong showing in the Championship. This has, as ever, been largely due to Gooch, but their two new signings, Ronnie Irani, who got an unbeaten 50, and Mike Kasprowicz, have also provided some cut and thrust with bat and ball.

By standing tall and playing predominantly off the front foot, Irani made batting seem delightfully uncomplicated. At 239 for four, Essex appeared to be capable of getting in the vicinity of Worcestershire's 381, but the remaining wickets tumbled for only 23 runs.

The pitch has had something in it, though few of the bowlers on either side have been able to discover exactly what. Stuart Lampitt proved the exception and his 100-minute spell in the morning brought him three more wickets to add to the two he had taken on Friday.

By persisting with a tight line and length, he had both Mike Garnham and Jonathan Lewis lbw to balls that kept cruelly low. Nadeem Shahid, on the other hand, holed out to long leg, this time deciding to hook the bouncer instead of ducking, an option that saw him retire hurt first ball the previous evening after being struck.

With Stephenson and Gooch comfortably surviving, Essex will need at least one of them to make a big hundred tomorrow if they are to win here. Unfortunately for them, Prichard, who broke his thumb in the first innings, is unable to bat. Gooch, though, is accustomed to such adversity and it will need some fine bowling to prise him from the crease.