Cricket: Winds of change for Whitaker

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The Independent Online
Hampshire 225 and 152-5

Leicestershire 353

THE end of the season can be a sombre time. As chill winds test the resolve of those fighting it out for the minor places, there are players who know this season will be their last, as hire- and-fire meetings around the counties make known their malice. As many leave the game, others make themselves known, as Paul Whitaker, the 21-year-old Hampshire debutant did here yesterday, with a spirited 94.

His tenacious occupation as Leicester, with a 128-run lead, pushed for the win, totally belied his lack of experience at this level. Looking assured in defence, he displayed a decent array of shots with the left- hander's penchant for the cut, as well as the nifty flick through square leg. It was not pretty, but he prevented Hampshire from being swept away.

Three years ago, Whitaker began his career at Derbyshire as an off-spinner who could bat. Derby has never been a mecca for spin, and at the end of last year he found himself released. Undeterred, he wrote to Hampshire, secured a new contract and went about getting his chance by scoring heavily in the second team.

Leicestershire would have loved to have had some information on him, but apart from the curious habit of glancing back at his raised bat every time the bowler ran in, like a man checking his past without the aid of a rear-view mirror, they had little to work on, apart from a few lustily aimed air shots.

There is still pounds 24,250 to be won for second place in the championship, and a blustery day that blew in several heavy squalls did not help Leicestershire's cause. Having lost five of their last seven games, they are in danger of seeing a season that promised so much evaporate before their eyes.

There are still at least five sides who could still finish above them, but the urgency of their play, which began by Paul Nixon steering them past a fourth batting point with a career best 131, was evident. He was out soon afterwards, caught on the hook by Cardigan Connor, the wicket providing another career best, this time for James Bovill, who ended with five for 108.

An aggressive opening spell by David Millns, hurtling in for 11 unchanged overs, kept both openers pegged back on the crease until a misjudgement of length by Paul Terry gave him his 74th wicket of the season.

Soon afterwards, a reticent Giles White made a hash of a pull stroke, the ball looping towards mid-on, where the Leicestershire captain, Nigel Briers, made a neat sliding catch as Hampshire found themselves 68 for two.

Gauging a pitch at this time of year with the early starts is never an easy thing, but with the off-spinner Adrian Pierson beginning to extract some turn, the pitch was clearly showing signs of wear. Ideally another hundred by Robin Smith, like the one he scored in the first innings, would leave the opposition with a tricky 200 or so to negotiate on the last day.

Instead, not long after Whitaker passed his fifty with a scorching cut off Pierson, Smith, as he has done often before, was bowled padding up, and Hampshire were 95 for three. With Mark Nicholas fourth out, caught and bowled by Pierson, Hampshire had still not moved into credit. Further delays, brought about by heavy rain, meant that 46 overs were lost. But as the sun broke through late in the day, so did Leicestershire, as Simmons brought Whitaker's deserving innings to a close. Nearing what would have been the first century by a Hampshire player on debut, he flashed at the Trinidadian and was caught at second slip by Millns.

There were no further alarms for Hampshire, but with a slender lead of only 22, it is hard to see anything but more fickle weather being able to prevent Leicestershire going second in the table tomorrow.