Cricket: Smith's fine judgement curbs Essex

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The Independent Online
Essex v Hampshire

LET IT not be said that Robin Smith, at 35, is long in the tooth in cricketing terms. On yesterday's evidence there are still plenty of runs left in the old boy.

The Hampshire captain, known affectionately as the Judge, has helped his side to the top of the County Championship table and is clearly bent on keeping them there.

He held court in imperious fashion at Valentines Park yesterday as he continued to mine a rich run of form. Sure, there was the odd mistake before his dismissal - just two in fact in successive balls - but they did little to impede his progress as he passed fifty for the fourth time in his last seven Championship outings. The two errors of judgements arose in the same Ronnie Irani over. The Essex all-rounder had already accounted for the dangerous Will Kendall with a beauty of a delivery that left the batsman late shortly before lunch. He was bowling particularly well into the afternoon session and found the edge of Smith's bat - a rare feat against the former England player - but the ball fell frustratingly short of Stuart Law at second slip.

Undeterred Irani, like a good fisherman, cast again in the same area, again the fish rose, again the ball flew off the edge. It was sharp and well to Law's right, but it carried this time. Unfortunately despite a heroic effort the Australian failed to hang on to the ball so Smith hung on to his wicket.

Thereafter he resembled more a shark, cruising about patiently awaiting opportunity. When he pounced he would bite off big chunks of the Essex advantage. The weather may have been unseasonal, but Smith's ominous presence must have struck a chill into the hearts of the Essex faithful while lifting the spirits of the Hampshire following.

Smith punished the short ball with potent pulls and trademark cuts, which had the hoardings resounding around the grounds with almost metronomic regularity. And anything full would be driven to the boundary.

The early departures of opener Giles White and Kendall had raised home hopes, but with John Stephenson, an Essex old boy, at the other end Smith had set about repairing the innings. His timing and shot placement were exemplary. By the time he lost Stephenson who got an inside edge onto his stumps, the pair had put on 97 for the third wicket. It was not until after tea when Smith had drawn in sight of a deserved century that a rare lapse cost him dear. The dismissal was apposite in a way since the man who ended Smith's fine contribution was Irani. Smith had dispatched him for three fours on the bowler's return to action and was tempted into trying for another, however, his intemperate slash provided Darren Robinson at slip with a comfortable catch and three hours of Essex misery was over. Smith departed leaving behind him a painful legacy for the home side of 17 boundaries among the 149 balls he faced.

Earlier Essex had laboured towards a fourth batting point taking 56 minutes to achieve it and on the way presenting Hampshire with a fourth bowling point. The conservative approach was understandable, however, given the fact that the last time Essex managed maximum batting points was two seasons ago in September 1997.

At least Paul Grayson took his career best score past the magic mark of 150. But now his team mates have to ensure that all his hard graft is not wasted against the Championship leaders.