Cricket: Tikolo makes out-grounders' day

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AT half past twelve yesterday, a quarter of an hour after play had started at Canterbury, Kennedy Otieno went to cut a ball from Ian Austin and Graham Thorpe took a matter-of-fact catch at first slip. Kenya 7 for 1. England on their way. The start of a professional job. Knock them over in next to no time, polish off the runs, everyone back to the hotel nice and early.

The realisation of this prospect could be heard in the somewhat dutiful reaction from the crowd. However much home supporters might have wanted their team to do well, few wanted to see an exercise in one-sidedness.

There is an argument that England, having won the toss, should have batted - that they should have been thinking in terms of keeping us entertained by trying to rattle up a big score, and not in terms of killing the game by sticking Kenya in and dismissing them cheaply. In situations like this the team's requirement and that of the crowd are essentially incompatible.

An England match at an "out-ground" is not like an England match at a Test venue. It has only happened once before in the World Cup - at Taunton in 1983. On that occasion against the then fledgling Sri Lanka, England won the toss and amassed a 60 over total of 333, with the Sri Lankans managing 286 in reply. That was how it should be.

At the St Lawrence ground yesterday there was a real sense of the circus coming to town, no matter that The Oval is not much more than an hour up the M2. In terms of identity, especially as far as cricket is concerned, Kent is much more its own place than its proximity to London might suggest. Hosting this match meant a lot to local people - not that it wouldn't in Worcester, say, or Chester-le-Street, of course - and for it to coincide with the worst weather of the tournament so far somehow felt much more disappointing than if England had been rained on at Lord's. And after a start delayed by an hour and a half, the last thing anybody really wanted was a procession.

For that reason, there was no doubt that Kenya's No 3 batsman, Steve Tikolo, was the real hero of the day - for making a game of it, and doing so in such attractive style. The stand of 100 he shared with Ravindu Shah for the second wicket was easily the highlight, and for a time it was possible to entertain thoughts of one of the great upsets.

What was impressive about Tikolo and Shah's batting was the way they rarely departed from technical correctness, and such risks as they took were nicely calculated from the moment Tikolo put his early caution behind him by stepping into a good-length ball from Darren Gough and smacking it straight through mid-off for four. It was not the ball to do that to at all, but he pulled off the shot with complete assurance.

Tikolo, aged 27 and with experience of club cricket in Glamorgan, certainly lived up to his big reputation. Shah's talent also shone through as the England bowling attack was made to look a little one-dimensional. But once Shah had gone, Kenya were let down by their middle order, and the hint of something special in the batting of the wristy left-hander Hitesh Modi remained just that because of the shortcomings of the team's running between the wickets.

But let's not be too harsh on Kenya, for it is they who provided what will live in the memory from an occasion that England and the weather did their best to shroud in anticlimax.