Cricket: Smith confirms his mettle

Worcs v Leicestershire
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The Independent Online
JAMES WHITAKER'S legacy to Leicestershire is "a strong squad capable of retaining the Championship". That's what he thinks, anyway. Whether they can justify their departed captain's faith seems now to depend on whether the leaders Surrey can stay a course that has tended lately to prove beyond them. Leicestershire should, however, win this one.

They need to. Surrey's easy victory at Edgbaston on Friday widened the gap between themselves and the defending champions to 38 points overnight, rendering the win bonus here nothing less than essential to Leicestershire's challenge. After setting Worcestershire a monumental fourth-innings target of 475 on a turning wicket on the third day, the outcome is in the hands of their bowlers.

It is a test of the strength of which Whitaker spoke as he announced his retirement last week. This is a heavily depleted Leicestershire, lacking James Ormond, Chris Lewis and Matthew Brimson through injury as well as their England players, Alan Mullally and Aftab Habib, and they are reliant on Tim Mason and Amer Khan, neither of whom is regularly entrusted with such responsibility, to exploit the conditions.

Worcestershire employed four spinners but none was able to keep Ben Smith from progressing to his second century of the season. The stylish right- hand batsman, who made his debut as an 18-year-old in 1990, was burdened by expectation in his early years, when some described him as Leicestershire's brightest prospect since David Gower. Inevitably, after playing with much promise initially, he then struggled as bowlers worked him out. But he is a level-headed fellow and in maturity has clearly discovered how to come out on top again.

Last year brought four Championship centuries and 1,165 runs in total at 64.72, which placed him above Habib at the top of the title-winners' averages. With yesterday's runs his total for this season rose to 633. He was talked about for Edgbaston before Habib was preferred and deserves to be considered again.

Smith batted with considerable assuredness yesterday, executing some beautiful drives and delicate dabs and rarely seemed ill at ease against the turning ball. He reached three figures off 170 balls with 10 fours and a six and enjoyed himself thereafter, clearing the rope on three more occasions off Richard Illingworth with an off-drive, Vikram Solanki with another and Matthew Rawnsley, via the slog-sweep, in turn.

His most effective supporter turned out to be Mason, the nightwatchman, who stayed with him in a partnership of 97. Mason's 36, the best of a fledgling career, included a five when a glance trickled on to the close- in fielder's unemployed helmet.

Smith survived three more partners before some turn and lift from Rawnsley had him snared in Tom Moody's considerable reach at slip on 138.