Cricket: Stand-in Rao rushes to record

Derbyshire 327-8 Sussex 329-5 Sussex win by five wickets
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The Independent Online
It is nothing new in Sussex's illustrious history for someone to bat like a prince. But, in these days of cricketing penury, Rajesh Rao's innings of 158 here yesterday was as brilliant as it was unexpected and it steered them to an epic win. No side has ever made as many as 329 batting last to win in the NatWest Trophy.

Rao is 22 and had but five Championship matches behind him and no century to his name. You would never have guessed it from the power, intelligent selectivity and sometimes the sheer majesty of his stroke play against a formidable array of seam bowlers.

Even on the flattest pitches, prepared by Derbyshire for a scenario similar to the way they outplayed Northamptonshire in the previous round, their reputations probably still meant something to him. Whereas Devon Malcolm had cleaned out seven Northamptonshire batsmen, he now found himself clubbed over mid-on in his first over.

This little bravado, plus a number of inviting deliveries flipped effortlessly off his pads, seem to convince Rao and probably most of his colleagues that making more than 300 to win batting second could be done. When he got out after 165 balls and 18 fours his inexperience betrayed him, but by then Sussex were virtually home.

There was still room, perhaps, for a hiccup or two. Andrew Harris and Dominic Cork bowled tightly under pressure, and if Keith Newell had been caught with 15 needed off two overs, anything could have happened. But on a huge arena, where twos or threes were hard to prevent, Newell and Pete Moores calmly prevailed after that.

In its modern one-day context, Rao's display may one day be placed alongside some of those innings played by Duleep Sinjhi and Ranjit Sinjhi. He placed the ball moreor-less where he wanted with supple-wristed strokes off his legs or outside the off stump and his footwork and quick judgment of length made him almost impossible to bowl to at times.

Rao rated it the best innings he had ever played. The Derbyshire captain, Phil DeFreitas, said it was "a superb innings -he played tremendously well."

Although Rao's inexperienced showedc when he got out with 59 to get, even the vastly experienced Neil Taylor tried to smash Cork over the top instead of simply pushing the ball around, but by then Derbyshire, having found the ball would not swing for them as it had for Vasbert Drakes, knew the game was up and their attack was rather too much of a muchness on this pitch.

Like Sussex, they did all they could to take the pace off the ball. This encouraged Chris Adams to rein in his attacking instincts in the interest of playing a long innings, which he did, remaining unbeaten with 129 from 148 balls.