Cricket: Irani fluffs his rehearsal

New Zealand 236 Essex 281-5
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A TALE of two captains: Nasser Hussain had a net on Friday morning, and joined Essex's throw-downs yesterday morning. Steve Rixon, the New Zealand coach, reported that Hussain had looked a bit scratchy in the nets. Although that is what you might expect a cunning old games-player to say, he did admit that the net wicket was a poor one. Hussain, leaving the ground after lunch, smiled faintly and had nothing to say.

At the start, Stephen Fleming stood in the slips or the gully wearing sweater and shades, but they did not disguise the fact that he looked cheerful. He had not scored many himself (eight) in New Zealand's modest first- innings total of 236, but Essex's wickets fell regularly before lunch on a brisk wicket that still helped the seamers.

The fifth to fall was Irani's. After taking 3 for 24, he scored 24, not too few to exclude him from the England squad, but not enough to cause the New Zealanders to quake. An unbroken sixth-wicket stand of 183 between two of Essex's bright under-achievers, Darren Robinson and Stephen Peters, now threatens Essex's all-time record for the wicket of 206. Robinson's hundred changed the complexion of the game, but not the mood of the tourists.

Rixon is already talking a winning game for the Oval. "New Zealanders are generally an insecure race, but the players feel good about themselves, and we're the stronger of the two sides," he said. Conversation with Rixon - a stocky, ebullient Australian who wears a finely trimmed moustache - makes it clear that New Zealand already operate the system that England aspire to. "Only the captain and myself make decisions," he says. They have stuck, almost nervelessly, to their policy of bringing on young players, and Rixon declares proudly that they have "knocked out seniority". Roger Twose, at 31,is the oldest member of the Test team.

But this was not merely a quiet prelude to the Test. Geoff Allott and Shayne O'Connor, both left-arm medium, were competing for the third seamer's place. Both took two wickets before lunch, but O'Connor got the one that mattered when he had Irani lbw just before lunch.

Irani has blond highlights in his hair, but he looked far from cool as he left the field, hitting the gate and the gateman's chair with his bat. He might have been angry because O'Connor had discomposed him when he tried to throw down his wicket. But the worse injury was the missed opportunity to show that he really is worth an place in the Oval team.

Towards the end of the day, Fleming, now sweaterless, dropped a difficult catch off Peters, diving to his right at first slip. Peters was 59 then, and 94 at the close. Irritating no doubt, but not enough to wipe the smile off Fleming's face.