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Cricket: Surrey's spinners put title in reach

County Championship: Saqlain and Salisbury weave magic for leaders while Silverwood makes light of absent colleagues; Nottinghamshire 115 Surrey 199-8
IT WOULD be a wicked twist to the Surrey tale if they were docked 25 points for a substandard pitch. The whole idea is heavy with irony, given that Harry Brind is one of the England and Wales Cricket Board pitch consultants, his son Paul is the groundsman at The Oval and the club is on the brink of winning its first County Championship for 28 years.

Umpires Mervyn Kitchen and John Steele are obliged to report the pitch to Lord's because so many wickets fell on the first day - the requisite number before a report has to submitted is 15 - but it is unlikely there will be any inspection or possible deduction.

The truth was, though, that the majority of those wickets came about through good bowling or poor batting. Nottinghamshire could certainly be praised for their bowling, but as far as their batting went Surrey needed no help from the pitch.

Surrey, who had begun the day needing eight points to win the championship, had scooped up four of them before two o'clock. Despite some late scrabbling, they were denied a batting bonus point, closing to within one run of their first in fading light at the end of a very long day; a day which had begun half an hour earlier because of the time of year and finished 40 minutes later thanks to an unattractive over rate from both sides. Surrey now need to win or draw the match to secure the title.

Their rookie opening bowlers Mark Patterson and Ian Bishop - in for the injured Ben Hollioake and Martin Bicknell (both with calf strains) - had done them proud early on, coming in eagerly and at pace.

Bishop was unlucky, beating the bat regularly, but the Ulsterman Patterson had a memorable championship debut, picking up three wickets courtesy of some poor shot selection, and when the new age Surrey spin-twins of Ian Salisbury and Saqlain Mushtaq came on the batsmen were just as obliging, surrendering their wickets with barely a whimper.

The opening batsman Usman Afzaal was a fine example. For more than two hours he had looked untroubled and initially even Saqlain and Salisbury appeared to hold no fears for him. In short, he was entrenched and within touching distance of his half-century.

Suddenly, with three runs needed, he heaved at the off-spinner and the resultant leading edge to mid-on presented Saqlain with the first of his three wickets. Since five Nottinghamshire men were already contemplating their navels, it was not good. Vasbert Drakes followed in the next over with another sad shot and only a sterling little salvage job by Alex Wharf and Paul Franks got them into three figures.

Salisbury matched Saqlain with three wickets, taking him to 50 for the season, although the Pakistani's economy - only 15 runs conceded in more than 13 overs - was peerless. He has now taken 54 wickets in only seven championship games.

The Surrey batsmen were made to work for their runs from the outset, with Franks and Drakes proving awkward. But the breakthrough was made by Mark Bowen who accounted for the opener Ian Ward, Jason Ratcliffe and Graham Thorpe before tea.

That put Alistair Brown among the pigeons, which had been gathering on the square for a close-up of events - there were almost more avian watchers than humans. On the emergence of the in-form batsman the birds took off and found a safer vantage point on the roof of the Bedser Stand.

They must have been disappointed. Brown, averaging more than 44 runs in the championship this season, was circumspection personified. The fireworks came from Alec Stewart, a fact quickly recognised by the pigeons who swooped down again midway through the pair's restorative partnership of 78 runs in 17 overs.

Brown fell first, for a modest 34 and Stewart went to a slip catch - just as Brown and three other batsmen did - when he was one short of the first half-century of the day. There is much work still to be done before the title resides at The Oval.