Knight cuts and thrusts to Lord's

NatWest semi-finals: Absence of Warne leaves Hampshire well short of class against proven performers
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The Independent Online

Much of the attention in a dashing NatWest Trophy semi-final at Edgbaston yesterday was on a player some 12,000 miles away. It has always been like that for Shane Warne, one of the cricketers of the 20th century, who remains a compelling presence wherever he is.

Much of the attention in a dashing NatWest Trophy semi-final at Edgbaston yesterday was on a player some 12,000 miles away. It has always been like that for Shane Warne, one of the cricketers of the 20th century, who remains a compelling presence wherever he is.

Warne has departed Hampshire temporarily to play a series of one-day indoor matches for Australia. But he will be back and the big question was could his county team-mates ensure a Lord's final appearance for Warnie? The answer unfortunately was writ large for most of the proceedings. He will return to these shores only to try to prevent Hampshire dropping into Division Two of the Championship.

Warwickshire made 262 for 4 after losing the toss and Hampshire made a thunderously aggressive start which they could not sustain. They lost by 19 runs and Warwickshire will appear in the premier one-day final, the last sponsored by NatWest, for the 11th time, their fifth in eight years.

The match was marked by one significant partnership and two crucial innings. The first was maturely fashioned by Nick Knight, the best one-day batsman in England, who hit his second successive century in the competition in sharing a first-wicket partnership of 185 with Anurag Singh. The second was brutally constructed by Robin Smith, who once wore Knight's mantle, but he could not complete his edifice. When Smith went he took Warne's faraway dreams with him.

It was a flat pitch, a glorious day and if the crowd was not as large as it should have been it was guaranteed the scoring of runs. At last. Warwickshire, put in, perhaps on the grounds that Hampshire wanted the tie to last beyond lunchtime given the parlous state of their batting, did not disappoint.

They were led from the front in splendour by Knight, playing with impish delight, cutting, finding gaps on the off side, running hard. In Singh he found a wonderful partner, a brash shotmaker unafraid to take on the mightiest of bowlers, a category into which not many of the opposition fell. (Alan Mullally, who is officially ranked as the second best limited-overs bowler in the world behind Glenn McGrath, was levered for six on the leg side.)

It was a dominating opening and while it did not wreak the havoc it sometimes promised, it was never less than authoritative. Thus it was a mild surprise when Singh clipped Mull- ally off his legs and was caught at long leg in the 39th over.

It was Warwickshire's highest stand for the first wicket in all limited-overs cricket, eclipsing Dennis Amiss and John Jameson who, 27 years ago, put on 183 in a John Player League match. That must have been a cricketing aeon ago. It was when Sunday League games, for some bizarre reason, were played on Sundays.

Warwickshire largely paced their innings with aplomb while keeping wickets intact. At 196 for 1 with 10 overs left they might have been expected to accrue 80 more. Knight's departure put that the other side of improbability. He pulled his 128th ball, a full toss, to square leg immediately after reaching his fourth trophy century.

Warwickshire would have settled for their total. Hampshire had never successfully chased such a target. The start was thrilling. John Stephenson of all people pulled a four in the first over before assuming a more passive role. At the other end Smith unleashed an array of vintage strokes, intermingling square cuts with booming cover drives off the back foot.

It seemed he was about to roll back the years and the Hampshire section in the assembly must have been tempted to dust off their old 45s of "Here Comes The Judge". Stephenson, becalmed but sensible, went to an unwieldy pull but the pair had put on 66 in 14 overs, well up with what was needed.

The power seemed to wane from Smith. The advent of spin might not have helped but he seemed to bide his time until his uncertainty was again revealed when he played a slightly crooked attacking shot at his namesake and captaincy counterpart, Neil. The ball turned through the gate. He hit 61 from 67 balls with nine fours but the initial thought was he needed to double all those figures.

Hampshire did not fold as abjectly as they have all season but they petered gently out against some knowing bowling accompanied by spectacular catching (not least Michael Powell's effort at short mid-wicket) and none of their middle order could play the blazing innings that was necessary.

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