Cricket: Kent caught out as Thorpe fights back

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The Independent Online
Surrey 342 Kent 86 and 195-8

WHEN the Test selectors met last night, one of the most important items on the agenda could be crossed out with great relief. Graham Thorpe's back began to trouble him in the Caribbean, kept him out of the Texaco Trophy, and was under scrutiny in this match, his last opportunity to prove his fitness before the Test series.

In his slip fielding yesterday he demonstrated a backbone worthy of a salmon. If he hadn't run out Martin McCague, the last man to fall in Kent's nightmare first innings, he could have equalled the world catching record for a fielder without gauntlets.

The tally is seven, pouched by Alec Stewart's father Micky in 1957, equalled by Tony Brown of Gloucestershire in 1966. The invalid Thorpe had to make do with six, mainly in support of some apparently unplayable spin bowling by Saqlain Mushtaq and Ian Salisbury.

It must be said that this is not a good wicket. It is as mottled as the fly leaf of an antiquarium book and, surprisingly for a strip in the middle of the widest table in the country, was being used yesterday for the fifth time in a week - it was played on last Sunday, and again for the midweek Benson and Hedges quarterfinal match that went into a second day.

Ironically, yesterday began rather well for Kent. Carl Hooper's spin bowling surely qualifies him these days as an all-rounder at the top level, and when he closed the Surrey innings 35 minutes into the morning by bemusing Martin Bicknell, he secured career-best bowling figures of seven for 93.

The Surrey quick bowlers Bicknell and Alex Tudor went to work eagerly, but with Kent's openers David Fulton and the tall, croaching Robert Key batting cautiously, the first 10 overs of the visitors' reply gave no indication that the pitch was about to become - to the men of Kent at least - utterly mystifying.

At this point Fulton faced Tudor for the first time in the match, and snicked. Alas for Thorpe, keeper Jonathan Batty blundered indecisively into his path. Two balls later, however, Thorpe dived for the first of his remarkable tally, and then Bicknell got into the act. Key missed a straight one to be lbw and Hooper followed three balls later.

Soon the spinners, with Thorpe in ever vigilant support, took over. Saqlain bowls his off breaks fairly flat and fast, and he rips his fingers viciously down the side of the ball. The leg spinner Salisbury, meanwhile, began to show the results of some intensive training with Australian spin guru Terry Jenner during the winter, his arm lower than before, his loop brisker. In 42 overs Kent crumbled to the lowest first class total of the season, and on the resumption both openers were once again brushed aside. It was then that Hooper reminded us that, when his mind is fully on the job, he is one of the world's finest and most watchable batsmen.

Stroking his runs at one per ball, he neutralised the venom of the spinners. One of his four sixes, clubbed off Salisbury, hardly rose above head height as it crossed the long midwicket boundary, and he showed scant respect for Saqlain.

Perfect timing, economy of effort, murderous intent, and his stand of 63 runs in 15 overs with Alan Wells restored a little Kentish dignity.

But when Hooper was within another six of a beautiful century, he tickled a legside Saqlain ball round to Batty. He could not save the game, of course, but his artistry had brightened the day. Some observers, including Hooper himself, felt that his first innings lbw had been a harsh decision. One could only speculate on how the course of the match might have changed had he been reprieved.