Cricket: Old routine for Gatting

Middlesex v Essex
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The Independent Online
THIS IS only the second first-class match at Southgate. Since the first was in 1859, Mike Gatting was not playing. It only seems that he has been around for about 140 years. The resumption of proceedings turned out to be worth the wait. The ground, even under swirling clouds, was a picture, lined by trees and overlooked by a church; records fell more quickly than in a dodgy juke box; and it seemed a pity that the only Southgate on most people's minds was the central defender still trying to recover from injury in France in time to take part in England's World Cup campaign.

Gatting scored the 93rd century of his career (which actually began a mere 24 years ago), his opening partner, Justin Langer, became the first player to reach 1,000 first-class runs for the season during his century and together the pair broke the Middlesex record for the first wicket. They put on 372, overtaking the unbroken 367 shared by Wilf Slack and Graham Barlow against Kent in 1981, at Lord's rather than Southgate, and the only surprise was that they were ever parted.

Four balls after Langer pushed a single through mid-on to achieve the new benchmark he thinned a nurdle to third man and was caught behind. Soon after that a deluge interrupted play (old cricket records are deemed precious in heaven) when Gatting and Mark Ramprakash had shared an unbroken stand for the second wicket of one.

For most of the day it had looked as though Essex might never take another wicket again. Pitches do not come much flatter, the bounce was low, but not too low, and the pace was slow, but not too slow. Essex did not take long to deduce this (their captain, Paul Prichard, had shelled a half- chance in the gully the previous day when Langer was seven) and while it would be wrong to suggest they did no more than go through the motions they were not exactly filled with the competitive urge either.

Not that this should detract from the quality of the opening partnership. Langer was forthright in his strokeplay. One look at him and you would know he was an Australian. He hits the ball with uncompromising power and his hunger for runs is not easily sated. This was his 23rd hundred. On five occasions he has gone on to 200, on 10 to 150 and on 14 to 140.

But he could not deflect attention from Gatting. The old trouper, the last England captain to win the Ashes lest anybody should forget, turned 41 earlier this month and is running out of time to complete his 100 hundreds. Running out of the right stuff, too, they have murmured. His top score this season had been 83 and he committed the cardinal error for a man in his position of missing out against Oxford University.

Gatting had been elevated to open the batting in place of the struggling Richard Kettleborough (was any surface ever more designed to get a man back into form?) and never looked like doing anything other than making a hundred.

He thumped the ball over deep mid-on and cut late and delicately with all the touch of a lifetime. Why, he might have been nudging the selectors, which, presumably, would mean giving himself a poke in the chest. Langer had hit 20 fours from his 321 balls when he was out, Gatting had faced 344 balls, 24 of which he had struck for four when the rains came.

Who would have thought it, a 41-year-old sharing in a county record stand? Mind you, Jack Hobbs was 43 when he took part in Surrey's best opening partnership in 1926.