THE VENUES that will decide this year's Championship may be at different ends of the country, but the team looking most likely comes from somewhere in between. Leicestershire began this game nine points to the good over Surrey, who in turn were two points ahead of third-placed Lancashire. By the end of the day, due largely to fine unbeaten centuries from Ben Smith and Aftab Habib, the Running Fox had put more daylight between its bushy tail and the following pack.
Smith and Habib, both 26, have been two of Leicestershire's most consistent batsmen this season, both averaging above the 60 mark. Amazingly, neither has ever been on an A tour, a fact David Graveney, the chairman of selectors who was present at The Oval yesterday, may well be rueing.
Uncowed by the importance of the match, they seized the initiative; men unafraid to shape their destiny. Coming together at 102 for 4 when the visitors were labouring following some careless dismissals, the pair added 247 for the fifth wicket, already a Leicestershire record for any partnership against Surrey. At the close the visitors were 349 for 4, one runs short of a fourth batting point.
By contrast Surrey appeared to lack any such spark, and once Martin Bicknell, their most dangerous bowler, limped off in mid-afternoon with a knee injury, heads dropped alarmingly. Their fielding, too, was sloppy, and Habib was twice missed on 62 and 82, both chances off Rupesh Amin - the second a simple catch to Nadeem Shahid at silly mid-off.
As one of two spinners - a profitable ploy for Surrey before Saqlain Mushtaq fled the roost for the Sahara Cup in Toronto - Amin laboured without success. His partner in spin, Ian Salisbury - if spin was not too much of an exaggeration - was equally ineffective and Habib in particular took a liking to him.
A marvellous timer of the ball, Habib's bat-speed is enhanced by a late flick of the wrists. Like Smith, he is a fine cutter of the ball, though a silky facility through mid-wicket means he is not tied down by balls pitched straight.
Poor Salisbury, with less pressure than a Test match but more than a run-of-the-mill county game, was found wanting, and 50 of the 64 runs he conceded came in boundaries, including a mighty six by Smith to bring up his hundred.
When you hand over soft runs at that rate, batsmen know they only have to wait a few balls before a long hop or a full toss comes floating down.
Opting to bat first on a dry, beige pitch, Leicestershire did not begin auspiciously. Ever since he was mentioned as an England opener in the making, Darren Maddy has hardly scored a run. Yesterday was no exception, and his lunging prod at Bicknell, which he edged behind, was the shot of a man bent on survival rather than domination.
The left-handed Iain Sutcliffe was scarcely any more commanding, and after some neatly clipped strokes off his legs he fell to Joey Benjamin chasing a ball well wide of off-stump for 18. Seven overs later Vince Wells, fortunate to be dropped on 18 at mid-on by Amin, became Ben Hollioke's first victim of the innings when he skewed a leading edge to mid-off.
From his angle wide on the return crease Hollioake Jnr was initially able to keep Leicestershire fairly quiet and he hit the jackpot in his sixth over when Phil Simmons diverted it on to his stumps. At that point, Surrey were in good shape and good heart. However, they had not reckoned on Smith and Habib.Reuse content