CRICKET: Wells plunders vital century

Leicestershire 301-6 v Essex
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TOP VERSUS bottom is not always a foregone conclusion and Leicestershire did not have everything their own way on the opening day against Essex. For instance, they lost the toss, an inconvenience barely noticed as Vince Wells powered his way to an unbeaten 140 as his team finished strongly with a further three batting points in the bag.

Hitting the ball hard, especially through the covers, Wells was merciless on anything loose. Worst to suffer was Jamie Grove, whose first three overs cost 27 runs. Since joining Leicestershire from Kent in 1992, Wells' batting has tended to follow the Nietzchean principle of plundering when you cannot steal. In 1996 he scored two double hundreds in a row, adding 197 in his next Championship knock. Yesterday's offering, played in front of a paltry crowd of 400, was his third of the season, though only the 12th of his career. Mind you, Essex offered him the means to indulge himself and their bowling, buffeted by strong winds, erred far too often on the short and wide side.

As an all-rounder Wells, now 33, is something of a misfit. Now probably regarded as too old for A tours, his only representative honours would have come this winter in the Super Max Eights in Perth, a competition now cancelled.

But if he dominated proceedings until after tea, when he appeared to run out of steam, things did not appear as easy at the other end. In the sixth over of play Darren Maddy edged Ashley Cowan behind for seven. Widely touted as an England opener earlier in the season, Maddy has had a poor season, so far scoring 505 runs at an average of 25.

Iain Sutcliffe, having squirted the ball to short leg off Irani when nought, made to walk but decided to stand his ground instead, a change of heart the umpire Allan Jones did not contend, much to the bowler's displeasure.

Revenge, although not specifically Irani's, came 39 runs later, Sutcliffe's forward push at Cowan ending in Barry Hyam's gloves. After the break Ben Smith perished lbw as he misjudged his pull and at 129 for 3 the home side, if not exactly struggling, were hardly dominating. It needed a brisk innings from the acting captain Phil Simmons to give Leicestershire the initiative. Matching Wells' power, he scored 61 in a partnership worth 118 before falling to a corker from Irani.

The pick of the Essex bowlers, Irani struck again, having Aftab Habib caught behind for eight. His excellence was not symptomatic of his side, who were generally sloppy. Paul Nixon, dropped at slip when he was on one, added another 25 before being bowled behind his legs. If Essex are to have any chance of avoiding the wooden spoon, they must take their chances.

At this time of year, those in the shake-up for the title tend to spend much of their time watching both the weather and Ceefax. If rain had a bearing yesterday in some matches, Leicestershire escaped lightly. Staying dry could be as important as staying fit in the run-in.