It's Justin time for a player at the peak of his game

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, Steve Waugh, Australia's captain, made the observation that Justin Langer was probably the best batsman in the world at present. It was during their successful tour of New Zealand, Langer had come through a period of poor form and utterly dominated his country's international season. He scored four centuries, big ones too, batting at number three.

The other day at Lord's it was possible to see just what Waugh was talking about. I batted at the other end while Langer cut loose. Northamptonshire, I thought, had bowled well with the new ball, but it took my new Middlesex captain only four balls to reach double figures with a square cut, a pull and a clip off his legs. He found the gaps, the bowling had no meaningful length for him and he was murderous on anything loose. He reached his 50 off 31 balls. The only other man I have seen bat like this is Brian Lara.

Langer, then, it almost goes without saying, is batting as fluently as I have seen him at the moment. This is his third year of county cricket so he knows well enough by now what to expect. He has probably been helped by batting in the top order for the best side in the world. Slaughter Test attacks as he has been doing and it no doubt has an effect on how you play elsewhere.

The way in which Langer acquired his runs transformed the Middlesex innings. The plan, as discussed, had been to play solidly, see off the new ball, make sure we built a platform. Justin provided his own version of this. It enabled me to build an innings, look for the single to give him the bowling and to be watchful.

It was gratifying to spend four hours in the middle. I never felt truly fluent - not as fluent as Justin anyway! - but time at the crease at this stage of the season is invaluable. Middlesex, after all, are picking their side from form in the nets.

I am enjoying opening. The main difference from batting at three, I suspect, is that you walk out to the middle in the company of another batsman. That, and having to dash off between innings and get prepared to bat immediately.

Lord's looks somewhat different from how it will appear for the First Test against Zimbabwe next week. Then the ground will be full and the pitch will be in the middle. For our opening Championship match it has not been full, though it has not been empty either, and the pitch has been on the outermost edge of the square towards the Mound Stand.

This is a regular occurrence playing for Middlesex and while you become accustomed to it over the seasons it can still be disconcerting. It unquestionably degrades the cricket. The boundary lengths are uneven and the short one is merely 50 yards. This makes it virtually impossible for spin bowlers to ply their trade. A mishit on the short side frequently goes for four. With no substantial outfield a slow bowler is up against it. One of his chief weapons has been taken away.

It tends to unbalance the art of run scoring. Yesterday, for instance, we were left with a conundrum. We were just over 300 ahead. How long should we bat on? Having played all the cricket in the match there was an obvious keenness not to lose by a declaration. This is one of the effects of two divisions. You do not want to be giving points away. The short boundary confuses this. A couple of chips into the Mound Stand and four an over becomes elementary.

It is, believe me, good to be playing cricket. There is nothing more demoralising for a cricketer than not playing and Middlesex have not played. The week has been bitterly cold but at least it feels the season has started.

But the activity at Lord's this week has not centred largely on the siting of the boundary for the match. The International Cricket Council met there on Tuesday and Wednesday and made the significant decision to launch an independent, worldwide inquiry into matchrigging. That has to be a welcome development.

It would be best if it worked and acted quickly. So much has happened over the past month that the game's image can only have suffered. Talk has died down in the dressing-rooms now - we're playing at last - but there is not a cricketer around who has not been disturbed by what he has heard.

What is important now is for the inquiry to be seen to be fair and properly independent, otherwise it will have no respect, let alone power. Whatever it turns up, the ICC must then act on the findings. That may well be the really interesting bit.

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