Crawley flourishes in a new era

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The Independent Online

It was blissful here yesterday as the English cricket season, enjoying its earliest start ever, began its first tentative steps into a new century. The scene, as Cambridge University spent the day chasing leather, may have looked familiar, but it was deceptive for there are vast changes afoot in all areas of the game. While the wisdom of two divisions and the new centres of excellence will all take time to digest, traditionalists were greeted with the immediate news that Lancashire, who declared on 364 for 3, are to wear fleeces in place of the old traditional woollen sweaters.

In the event, they did not really need either. The spring sun shone with enough warmth for spectators to shed their outer layers and as John Crawley, Lancashire's captain, went about recording his 33rd first-class century, all seemed well with the world. Only Michael Atherton, returning like Crawley to the place where the foundations of his reputation were laid, could claim otherwise, although he would have a tough job finding sympathisers after edging an innocuous looking ball.

Atherton, having got off the mark with what county pros used sneeringly to call the undergraduate's banker (a thick outside edge for four to third man) managed another streaky boundary, before pushing half-forward to Charlie Pimlott and snicking a low catch to the wicketkeeper, Malcolm Birks.

Pimlott, a third year law student at Downing (Atherton's old college), has no plans to play county cricket, hoping instead to become a barrister. Afterwards he admitted that the scalp was definitely his most prestigious. "It was a fairly ordinary delivery, though," he added. "Just straight and full."

The other bowlers dealt in much the same fare, which is meat and drink to Crawley. Providing Lancashire's new coach, Bobby Simpson, can overcome Crawley's failings outside the off-stump, he could yet make his way back into the Test selectors' minds.

Against this kind of attack, which, Pimlott apart, would probably not make a decent club side, Crawley was punishing, and he shared in two century partnerships - the first with Joe Scuderi, the other with Neil Fairbrother. Apart from one or two sloppy moments, he looked unbreachable and his demise after tea, stumped off Quentin Hughes, looked suspiciously sacrificial.

Scuderi, who made a pleasing half-century before edging a wide one, is an Aussie who qualifies as a home player by dint of an Italian passport. A stalwart for South Australia since the 1980s, he also played for a number of years in the Lancashire league. Now, at 31, he finds himself contracted to a county for the first time and a First Division one at that.

Fairbrother, who made an unbeaten 69, tootled along like the old pro he is, while Andrew Flintoff, looking fit after breaking his foot in the Cape Town Test four months ago, made the most of an early let-off by thumping 80 off just 35 balls, including four sixes and 10 fours. Together they added 100 in 10.1 overs as spectators were scattered with a flurry of boundaries mainly from Flintoff.

Technically this will be the last season that Cambridge University will play first-class cricket. They along with Oxford, Durham, Loughborough, Cardiff and Leeds-Bradford, have been chosen as centres of excellence by the ECB. For some, Cambridge has already proved itself, providing fine Test players like Atherton, Peter May, Ted Dexter and Phil Edmonds.

Under the new directives it merges with Anglia University and build an indoor school. It will cost money and change the landscape, especially as part of the ground has been sold to pay for the project. For some it will be a bitter pill to swallow but if it provides a Dexter or two every few years, it will be worth it.