Cricket: Russell's dogged fight saves day

Gloucs 232-9 v Middlesex
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IF LEICESTERSHIRE and Surrey fight themselves to a standstill next week at The Oval and if it keeps raining at Headingley, then Gloucestershire could remain in contention for their first-ever Championship title until the last day of the season. Even if they are ultimately disappointed, the quietly effective leadership of Mark Alleyne and the presence of the most productive and hard-working overseas star on the circuit, Courtney Walsh, have already ensured a satisfactory placing and optimism for the future.

Ending the season against two sides lurking in the bottom four of the table, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, they arrived at a blustery Lord's full of confidence. This may well have been bolstered by the decision of Mark Ramrakash to bowl first, since the most likely explanation seemed to be purely negative - avoiding Walsh for a day or so. Middlesex have lost their last three Championship games, and have gone 10 without a win.

When, after a lively but rain-interrupted start from Rob Cunliffe and Tim Hancock, Gloucestershire sunk to 67 for five, Ramprakash's choice had been transformed into shrewd generalship, with Angus Fraser and Richard Johnson making good use of a seaming strip. Early afternoon arrived with a patter of rain and a clatter of wickets. Both openers lost their off stump playing inside Fraser, Alleyne was yorked, Matt Windows was so plumb that he almost appealed against himself and Dominic Hewson sparred a lifter to gully.

Jack Russell dug a trench and occupied it for more than two and a half hours, while first Bobby Dawson and then Martyn Ball accompanied him. Steadily, while Ramprakash remained faithful to seam, the Gloucester middle order brought the visitors back into the game.

In the evening, though, Russell's restlessness undid him. He shuffled back to the third Middlesex pace bowler, James Hewitt, but left his bat in place. When, three balls later, Jonathan Lewis was sharply taken at second slip by Paul Weekes, Middlesex had reasserted their control.

Hewitt returned to bowl at Mike Smith and found the edge of his bat as well. And yet the day's last act belonged to the visitors. Ball's defiant innings grew in stature while Walsh clowned at the other end. They resume today having added 46 priceless runs.