Cricket: Stephenson firm on day of ironies

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The Independent Online
Essex 218; Leicestershire 107-2

THOUGH the scorecard may not suggest it, the cricket here yesterday was as tough, uncompromising and intriguing as expected from two teams near the top of the championship table. At the heart of it was a pitch of uncertain pedigree, and Essex would be grateful not only that they won the toss but that John Stephenson's gritty display stopped them dissipating that advantage.

Stephenson battled it out for 201 balls to make 83. Early on, he retired hurt when hit on the hand by David Millns, the ball not quite carrying to short leg. As most batsmen will on this pitch, he needed some luck, notably when Phil Simmons dropped him at 20 off Alan Mullally.

Stephenson, to his disgust, perished to a less than lethal delivery from Millns. It was one of the day's little ironies that several other batsmen also got out trying to cash in on something loose while surviving the better deliveries on a pitch where no batsman probably ever really felt in.

Many of them were bowled by Mullally, who is currently going through a phase where he cannot get anyone out. Ronnie Irani, before he had scored, edged him to slip only to be reprieved by the

umpire's call of no ball.

And Simmons actually had the one he dropped in both hands, only to spill it as his body hit the turf.

Mullally took those episodes stoically. He also tried to explore a theory that Nasser Hussain might be vulnerable to something short. Four times in one over he passed his bat. Cricket's version of Sod's Law then intervened when Hussain, looking to whip a harmless looking ball from Simmons off his legs, was brilliantly caught by the diving Tim Boon.

Simmons was also among those who contributed some original dialogue when Mike Garnham obtained boundaries over the slips and off an inside edge while making 39 out of 54 for the sixth wicket before a calming word from the umpires settled things down.