Cricket: Smith takes no risks

Essex 354-9 dec and 218-3 dec Hampshire 324 and 36-2 Match drawn
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The Independent Online
MARK ILOTT, patrolling the boundary by the press tent yesterday morning, asserted that a deal was suggested by Nasser Hussain after three days of this rain-affected game, in order to give it artificial respiration. "They were offered 300 to win off 70 overs, but Smith refused."

Robin Smith, with a cricketer's memory for betrayals, claimed that Essex had stitched up Hampshire once long ago, and he was not going to agree to a run chase, only to find nine fielders lurking in the deep.

Essex had already established a negative tone by persisting with their first innings into the third day to secure a last batting point. At 327 for 7 on Thursday night they might have called it off, putting moral pressure on Smith to declare while in deficit.

Another dampening factor was a pessimistic weather forecast for yesterday afternoon, but this proved to be a false alarm. So there were no gestures, no deals. The crowd were offered an afternoon of demonstration batting by Hussain and Stuart Law. Their 128-run stand ended as the tea urn was just starting to hiss, Hussain turning Simon Renshaw lazily to midwicket and Smith taking an agile catch.

Earlier on, it had simply been a battle for bonus points. Hampshire missed out on their last one, Shaun Udal holing out to third man late in the morning as he aimed to hit Ashley Cowan to the other side of the ground.

The first day was washed out, but only 22 overs were lost after that. The irony is, given four days of fine weather, so many county games are all over by the third evening. But take away day one and the players seem already of a mind for a draw.

And yet there have been huge compensations to entertain the faithful. In Essex's first knock Paul Grayson made 159 not out, a career best, but Thursday's highlight was a dazzling half-century by Law. When in form, his timing, and the way he leans into the pitch of the ball, urging it to the fence, are the equal of any batsman in the world.

Friday was Smith's day. His 96 was another demonstration of sweet timing, and formed the core of Hampshire's response. Law took his turn again yesterday. In this form he is batting on a different plane. The spin that confuses others is a mild irritation and if it strays a fraction, he rocks back and finds the gap. The bounce of the quick men is just another chance to score.

Yesterday's century, at precisely a run a ball, transcended the mechanics of the game itself and was to be savoured for its own special delights. As the sky clouded over, Hussain declared, and Hampshire contrived to lose two wickets before the formality of the draw was agreed.

l Surrey moved to the top of the Championship table with a fourth successive win, by an innings and 28 runs, over Kent at Tunbridge Wells. Resuming on 154 for 9, still needing 46 runs to make Surrey bat again, skipper Matthew Fleming and Julian Thompson survived 23 balls before Thompson was trapped lbw by Martin Bicknell.