Cricket: Prichard restores the pride

Essex 252 Leicestershire 122-4
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IT IS said that everything goes in threes, and nowhere could there be a better illustration than here. For various reasons - form or injury - 1998 was an unhappy summer for Paul Prichard, Darren Maddy and James Whitaker.

It is arguable as to whether their luck has improved much this year, judging by yesterday's goings-on. At least the first two managed to score some runs, although they would not have been pleased with their share, and at least the Leicestershire captain, Whitaker, is now ambulant again after undergoing a couple of knee operations last year.

In Prichard's case his contribution, however frustrating from a personal point of view, did much to spare Essex's blushes and earn them a couple of bonus points that they could so easily have missed. He then had the pleasure of seeing Leicestershire begin the defence of their title with a degree of uncertainty.

Prichard had miscued an attempted pull, a horrible-looking shot, when he was a mere nine runs from what would have been a very welcome century, his first since August 97. Still, it was almost four times his highest score last year. It was a deep disappointment to the crowd and to the man, but at least there was a more assured air to the former captain and a certain amount of fluency as he hammered 14 fours.

Maddy also fell short of a landmark, having put a lean year behind him as he cruised to a good-looking 46. At that point the penetrative Mark Ilott drew him half forward and found enough of a gap to knock over his poles. Leicestershire had already lost Iain Sutcliffe, who had pecked and scratched around for precious few runs, and Maddy's wicket was quickly followed by that of another big hope, the prolific Aftab Habib.

Enter Whitaker, who is approaching his 37th birthday. His last Championship match was against Durham in 1997, after which he underwent operations in December and again in June last year to repair his left knee. He does not expect to play a big part in his county's one-day campaign, but he will have to do something to restore Leicestershire's fortunes in this match.

In fact, by the time Ilott had finished with Leicestershire Essex had achieved something of a role reversal. Bottom of the table they may have been last year, but, until bad light cut proceedings short with a handful of overs remaining, they certainly look to have the upper hand here.

A lot could now depend on how Whitaker's luck goes today. He struggled a little with his timing, but he managed to do what the younger elements of his team failed signally to do: to hang around. Not only that, but he and another seasoned campaigner, Paul Nixon, dug in and nicked and nudged Leicestershire to within 130 runs of what may well prove to be an inadequate Essex first-innings score.