Cricket: Smith strikes rich seam of form

Hampshire 316 and 145 Gloucestershire 403 and 59-4 Gloucester won by 6 wkts
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IN EARLY afternoon yesterday, Gloucestershire's bustling left- arm seamer Mike Smith thudded the ball into Simon Renshaw's pads and achieved his best ever match analysis of 10 for 106. He had set up the home side for a brief chase towards the top of the early-season Championship table. Given that Hampshire emerged 10 minutes later to defend a lead of just 58, the Gloucestershire chase was more against the black clouds billowing in from the south-west than against even the most optimistic of the visiting bowlers. News of grim weather elsewhere had been reaching Bristol all day, but a forecast of sunshine and showers could not frustrate the home side, however much they faltered in late afternoon.

Smith, now 29 years old, impressed the selectors enough two years ago to earn an A tour to Pakistan. Alas, he was soon back home, sidelined with a muscle injury, and has hardly been mentioned in despatches since. More persevering performances like this, on a perfectly sound wicket, could revive his chances.

While he was working away at one end, however, a greater fast-bowling drama was being staged at the other. When David Lawrence's kneecap shattered with a noise that was heard around the world, bowling for England at Basin Reserve, Wellington, in February 1992, it seemed that the career of the whole-hearted and very swift Gloucestershire man could well be over. He recovered, resumed training, and the knee gave way again. He set himself up as a bar-restaurant proprietor in Bristol, and that, surely, was that.

This game marked his improbable return to first-class cricket. But one fears for him every time he runs into bowl. That massive frame now weighs 18 stone, and the long run-up and explosive delivery stride seem scarcely less self-destructive than they used to be. In his third over of the morning, all was clearly not well. He then limped into the outfield clutching a hamstring and withdrew. When he reached the dressing-room he let out a reverberating roar of frustration. But he had managed 26 overs in the game, and it is as heart-warming as it is remarkable to see him back. Indeed, after treatment, he returned to fielding duties. A statistician in the Jessop Tavern noted that the morning's play had seen the scoreline "caught Russell, bowled Lawrence" recorded for the 81st time in first- class cricket.

He also revealed that Gloucestershire's new skipper, Mark Alleyne, has not missed a representative Gloucestershire match during the 1990s. Alleyne, the first and most illustrious graduate of the Haringey Cricket College, gained the top job at the Phoenix Ground when Jack Russell's request to be captain, manager, selector and anything else he fancied, was denied.

A couple of twists were saved for late in this match. One sometimes feels that the time of the tea interval must be set down in one of those mysterious tables in the Book of Common Prayer, never to be tampered with. Yesterday's arrived when Gloucestershire needed eight runs to win, and so tea was taken. They had only lost one wicket by then. The swift Simon Renshaw, no less determined than Mike Smith, made it four before the home side struggled, rather than strolled, to victory soon after 4 o'clock.