Cricket: Pitch escapes with a warning

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The Independent Online
Middlesex 237 & 124-8 dec

Gloucestershire 99 & 218 Middlesex win by 44 runs

Not a good day for Gloucestershire. With the jury at the boundary's edge waiting to deliver their verdict on the relaid Bristol pitch, they were looking to the weather to lend them a helping hand, but rather like policemen and buses when you need them, the expected and longed-for rain did not arrive.

Despite a heroic last-wicket partnership of 49 between Mike Smith and Jonathan Lewis, which made a mockery of all the histrionics over the state of the Nevil Road wicket, Gloucestershire subsided gently to defeat, a tantalising half a dozen overs or so from safety.

There then followed the verdict of the English Cricket Board's itches Advisory Group and a suspended penalty which just added to West Country woe. It was decided to mark the pitch "poor" and issue a formal warning under the regulations that a repetition within 12 months would lead to a 10-point penalty.

It could have been worse. Gloucestershire could have been docked 25 points. The reason the panel did not invoke the maximum penalty was because of the reduction in the variation of the bounce on the last day as compared with the first two days. A 25-pointer would have wasted a lot of sound effort earlier this season. At least this meant that they escaped yesterday with their four bowling bonus points intact to keep in touch with the top group.

Middlesex's decision to bat on when play got under way on time seemed madness with the weather forecast promising plenty of heavy rain. But in fact they were only out there long enough to add further 46 runs to their overall lead of 216, and present Lewis with a career-best return of 6 for 50 as he despatched Angus Fraser and Richard Johnson, who thrashed a lusty 31 with the help of seven boundaries off the 15 balls he faced. Then it was Gloucestershire's turn on the dodgy wicket.

They were in trouble almost from the start. Tony Wright had departed in the second over, the troubled Nick Trainor trailed in seven overs later and, with Monte Lynch, handicapped by a finger injury sustained on the first day when suspicions about the pitch were first raised, Gloucestershire were up against it.

Captain Mark Alleyne and Rob Cunliffe took them almost to lunch but then Middlesex struck again either side of the interval. Cunliffe went to Fraser and the Australian Shaun Young fell to a catch behind, leaving Alleyne and Jack Russell to try to shore things up.

They did so for 34 overs as they took the home side past the tea interval and their abysmal first innings total, then Russell fell having resisted for just short of two hours, Alleyne went in the next over after a three- hour stay for 75, his score of the season.

Tim Hancock and Martyn Ball squeezed and squirted their way towards a possible draw, then they too fell. All Gloucestershire wanted to do was hold out until the rain came. And all Gloucestershire had were Smith - a more than useful left-arm bowler, and Lewis.

They were together for nine nail-bitten overs. Smith grew in confidence as he went on; Middlesex brows darkened with the skies, until Johnson found the edge of Lewis's bat and Mike Gatting held the catch that took them to the top of the table.