Cricket: Students seeking a class act

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SHORTLY BEFORE 2.30pm at The Parks yesterday, a couple of ducks waddled on to the ground from the nearby lake and made their way to the middle, writes Stephen Brenkley. This is as symbolic as it is likely to get in cricket and since Oxford University were batting at the time, the conclusions were easier to draw.

The mallards were obviously trying to make a point, not least that the last thing the University wanted was any more ducks. Both their openers had registered one in the inadequate first-innings total of 81, and yesterday one of them, James Louw, completed a `pair' on his first-class debut. If it was not the South African batsman who chased off the intruders, it should have been.

Oxford made a much better fist of their second innings. By the fifth over of the day they were 4 for 2 in pursuit of a target of 339, a total which belonged in the realms of another galaxy. A lunchtime finish was not beyond possibility but the pitch played firm and true, and Oxford's early middle-order tried to match it.

In differing ways, John Claughton, this season's captain, Jim Fulton, last year's, and Byron Byrne, one of their Australians, resisted Worcestershire's mixed seam attack. But their efforts could not properly sustain a case for the alleged status of this fixture.

This is a weekend of abundant, perhaps unprecedented, first-class sport which embraces football, rugby, golf, boxing and racing of both the motor and horse types. Cricket's contribution was this fixture and one at at Cambridge, where the University play Lancashire (and are also putting up a worthy rearguard action).

There is nothing at all wrong with the matches but to regard them as fulfilling any requirement of a first-class game except that they are of two innings and played over three days is risible. Worcestershire too may struggle in what passes for the genuine first-class game this year.

During the World Cup they will be without Tom Moody and Graeme Hick, their two best players. After that, Hick may be away on Test duty, raising another question beyond the place of universities in modern cricket. Should sides who give players to England be unfairly penalised with relegation to the County Championship's second division?

There is much pondering to be done this summer but for all the enduring charm of the setting, not much of it will be done at - or has anything to do with - The Parks.