Cricket: Saqlain sublime among the ridiculous

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The Independent Online
The sublime was confined to the odd moment for Surrey, most notably Saqlain Mushtaq's first first-class hat-trick; the ridiculous dogged Middlesex's batsmen for much of a bizarre afternoon, during which they tossed away their wickets like so much rubbish.

And all this following a morning when the position of the pitch, nearer The Oval than the centre of the Lord's square, contributed to the conversation around the ground, as well as to a steady flow of boundaries. The proximity of the Tavern boundary brought to mind an incident involving Ray Illingworth some 20 seasons ago. Then, with the strip in the same position, Illingworth, as Leicestershire captain, paced out 45 yards to the rope - five yards fewer than the regulations stipulate - and refused to play on it. Another was duly prepared.

There was no rolling of a new pitch yesterday, just a rolling over by Middlesex, although the Surrey captain, Adam Hollioake, must have been a trifle worried as Mike Gatting and Owais Shah piled up 104 runs for the third wicket in reasonably untroubled fashion either side of lunch.

They had patiently pushed the score along from a shaky looking 38 when Gatting perished, top-edging an attempted lap to Alistair Brown at short fine leg. By then he had scored the 174th half-century of his first-class career.

His departure marked a slide in Middlesex fortunes. With the next ball a further wicket fell, the 18-year-old Shah being caught by Rupesh Amin, 19, off the 19-year-old Ben Hollioake. Shah had made 44.

There had been a statistically significant clumping pattern to the fall of the Middlesex wickets, three pairs of them - two in three balls, two in two, and again two in two - a sequence eventually ended by Saqlain's hat-trick.

It was the first for Surrey since Sylvester Clarke's against Essex in 1987, and only the third for the county against Middlesex. The 20-year- old Pakistani off-spinner had already accounted for Mark Ramprakash and Keith Dutch in successive deliveries.

The last two balls of his next over saw Keith Brown - who had been responsible for winning the toss because Ramprakash was attending his grandfather's funeral in East London - and Richard Johnson depart to careless shots. When Jamie Hewitt pushed the first ball of Saqlain's next over into Adam Hollioake's hands at silly mid-on it completed the hat-trick, and it also gave him his third five-wicket haul in successive innings and earned Surrey maximum points. It also heralded a further twist to the tale.

Angus Fraser, the man with the hangdog expression, wagged the Middlesex tail putting on 43 runs with last man Phil Tufnell off 48 balls. Fraser thumped three sixes off Saqlain and a couple of fours to ease them to a batting bonus point they really did not deserve.