Cricket: Pitch halts Middlesex challenge

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The Independent Online
Middlesex 445-7 dec and 63-0 dec

Sussex 187-3 dec and 79-1

Match drawn

THE rain that prematurely brought the curtain down on this game not only put an end to some less-than-gripping entertainment, but also effectively sealed the sad fate of Middlesex's Championship challenge.

In theory we were denied an intriguing finish, but in practice a tame pitch had made that a vain hope long ago. When the elements had the final say, Sussex, set 322 in a minimum of 80 overs by a magnanimous Mike Gatting, needed a further 243 in 50, Alan Wells's overnight declaration having been followed by a 50-minute sally from Keith Brown and Mike Roseberry against the demon wiles of David Smith, Neil Lenham and the home captain.

Tranquility reigned, so much so that when a lone appeal from Lenham disturbed the morning slumber, an offended spectator emitted a plaintive 'Ssh'.

The solitary Sussex wicket to fall was that of Smith, who drove over a full-length delivery to be bowled off his pads by the ever whippety Neil Williams. Had Gatting been anything like as spritely, he might well have caught Lenham at silly point when the new man had made but a single.

As it was, there were no further alarms, Jamie Hall driving fluently and leaving anything not in his vicinity with such a flourish that it made Robin Smith's arm-shouldering technique look positively understated by comparison.

Adding an unbeaten 41 to his first innings 81, Hall requires another 31 to tot up 1,000 runs in a season for the second time. No regular opening pair in the country have a greater disparity in years than Smith, 36, and Hall, 24, and the junior partner is clearly benefitting from the old sweat's tutilage.

Ray Julian, whose 21-year stint on the first-class umpire's list ranks behind only those of Dickie Bird (with 22 years service) and Peter Wight (with 27), was speaking from experience when he labelled the surface the slowest he had ever encountered at Hove.

Indeed, if a disproportionate match tally of 774 runs for 11 wickets served to emphasise this view, the fact that Phil Tufnell wheeled down just the one over on the final afternoon - and that simply as a means of allowing Williams to change ends - underscored it in indelible ink.

Essex will be relieved to discover a discernible tinge of green on the adjoining strip reserved for tomorrow's four-day game. Middlesex will be merely green with envy.