THERE was an awkward moment in mid-morning here yesterday, when the Sussex captain was engaged in animated conversation with both umpires about the condition of the ball. Recent events led us to fear the worst. Law 42, Graham Gooch bursting into print saying: 'I can keep quiet no longer', and a fearless Test and County Cricket Board investigation resulting in an unequivocal statement, around about Christmas, along the lines of: 'Er, no comment.'
Happily, it transpired to be nothing more than the Sussex captain, Alan Wells, profferring the opinion that the ball might have gone out of shape. The umpires did not concur, and the game proceeded - largely uneventfully - until a terminal rain squall at teatime. Essex are in a good position, but the weather has decreed that their unrivalled talent for four-day cricket will be of little use to them here. The loss of 82 overs already has virtually reduced it to a three-day game.
It is a difficult pitch for scoring runs quickly on, slow, and offering assistance to both seamer and spinner. As Essex will also be without Nasser Hussain for the rest of the season (he broke a finger in the field on the opening day) their batting was appreciably closer to circumspect than cavalier.
Graham Gooch batted three and a quarter hours for 77, and had he gone on to record the 98th first-class century of his career, it would not have been among his more memorable. Gooch is not the sort to punch the air in triumph even when he has blazed his way to a landmark, and generously though the crowd applauded his half-century, the Essex captain responded by barely raising his bat above the horizontal.
Jonathan Lewis, who joined his captain after John Stephenson had hooked the not unlively Ed Giddins to his namesake Franklyn at long leg, assisted Gooch in a second-wicket partnership of 131 in 45 overs, but his was also an innings more notable for stickability than watchability.
You would not be in much danger of contracting writers' cramp making a note of Lewis's range of shot - he mostly works the ball through the on-side - and it was a more productive exercise totting up the number of balls he chipped just wide of Sussex fielders. However, given the conditions, it was a worthy effort. His half-century (his seventh in 14 first-class innings this season) contained only two boundaries, but he then struck five more in moving from 50 to 81 not out.
Gooch was eventually dismissed by Tony Pigott, caught behind flashing at a widish one, although Pigott might have had the England captain out many times before that. Pigott is now 34, and if he looks more out of shape than Sussex considered yesterday's ball to be, this owes much to the corset he wears under his sweater for a long-standing back injury. However, he still runs in with the same enthusiasm as he did on his debut 15 seasons ago, and he is just the sort of wholehearted cricketer that Gooch admires.
Gooch, who will shortly be sitting down to help select a tour party for India, will also have been impressed by Ian Salisbury yesterday. Salisbury bowled 20 overs for 38 runs, without taking a wicket, but well enough to earn him several approving nods from Gooch. Much depends on how much of a lead Essex can secure today, and that in turn depends on how much cricket the weather allows them.
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