Streak searches Zimbabwe for signs of precious mettle

Middlesex 516-6 dec Zimbabwe 176-2
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The Independent Online

Everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds at Shenley in the Hertfordshire countryside yesterday. The sun was hot; the beer tent ran dry; and the barbecue was doing good business.

Trees swayed in a light breeze and a decent crowd lounged in their shade, watching a promising young Middlesex batsman called Michael Brown from Burnley, whose previous claim to fame was that his mother introduced James Anderson to Lancashire. He was eventually out two short of his hundred in only his second game for Middlesex. The Zimbabwean batsmen found the going just as easy, but all was not as it seemed. A few bad vibes were spoiling this sylvan setting.

Zimbabwe's captain, Heath Streak, glanced out of the pavilion window as the Middlesex score climbed quickly towards 500. "I always try to look at the positive side of things," he said wistfully. Middlesex went on to score more runs than any Zimbabwe touring team had ever conceded against an English side, and it was becoming harder to accentuate the positive.

When he was backed into a corner by eager reporters, it became harder still. He sensibly confessed to uncertainty about the future of Zimbabwe cricket. "There's so much happening in the history of our country at the moment," he said.

And he conceded that the ICC ought to act to halt the growing disparity between teams like his and strong opponents like Australia, though quite how he did not say. He has quite enough on his mind as it is. He leads a team long on youthful inexperience and very short on players like Andy Flower, who established Zimbabwe's foothold in Test cricket. The young players are forced to learn the game in the international rather than the county arena. "We always knew it was going to be a tough ask," said Streak.

It was no less tough against Middlesex than England in a game that bisects the two Tests. The thrashing being administered to his bowlers was not the best preparation for Chester-le-Street next week, although Streak was resting himself and two other strike bowlers (Andy Blignaut and Douglas Hondo). But he still learned something. "In games like this you find out who's got a bit of character," he said.

He had detected it in Travis Friend, who bowled manfully, Tatenda Taibu (captain for the game) and Dion Ebrahim, who put on 96 for the first wicket with Mark Vermeulen.

Streak hopes the wicket will be easier for the Second Test. "We'd like to make the game a bit longer," he said. But until their opening pair confirmed that there is no mystery about making runs at Shenley, and Stuart Carlisle and Grant Flower carried on as they had begun, it made grim watching for the tourists.

Finally they scored much like Middlesex, adding 176 runs compared to 184 for the loss of one more wicket.

Paul Weekes reached his hundred an hour after lunch, but Brown was the centre of attention, partly because he is from the same Burnley generation as Anderson, partly because he got his chance only when David Nash, the Middlesex keeper, was injured in the warm-up. Brown, an opener by trade, had kept wicket at Durham University and was down to bat at No 7.

He attributed his slow start - 35 balls to get off the mark - to his opener's mindset. But he opened his shoulders when left-arm spinner Ray Price began to bowl and ended with a six and 18 fours. He will kick himself for holing out to square leg on 98. His mother wouldn't recommend that.