Essex riding high

Gloucestershire 280 and 27-4 Essex 532-8 dec
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Entertaining batting by Essex yesterday overcame time lost to the weather on Friday. By building a first-innings lead of 252, and then claiming four Gloucestershire wickets, they left themselves well placed to force their fifth successive win tomorrow, a victory which, depending on what happens at Leicester, could take them to the top of the Championship table.

I rather like Essex. There's a feel of heartland about it. If this was America, Essex would take their cricket around county fairs. There'd be the pick-up truck with exhaust extensions in the car park instead of Cavaliers and Escorts, and country music in the intervals. Good ol' boys like Waylon and Willie and Goochie.

Sadly we had to settle for Graham Gooch as the warm-up act yesterday. He had been batting since Thursday, of course, and from the way he began yesterday he looked in the mood to improve on his overnight 105. It wasn't to be. Courtney Walsh, digging the ball in short and getting lift, kept pushing Gooch so far on to his back foot that the Essex old-timer eventually trod on his stumps.

The crowd's disappointment was dispelled by Paul Prichard. I have seen fiddle players take a song by the scruff in the way Prichard set about the Gloucestershire bowling. There was simply no stopping the Essex captain. By the time he was well caught by Tim Hancock on the long-leg boundary, he had outscored his partner, Paul Grayson, at a rate of two to one.

Grayson had resumed the Essex innings first thing yesterday because Darren Robinson, Gooch's overnight partner, had broken his finger batting against Walsh the previous evening.

Having watched Prichard's demolition act, with strokes all round the wicket, it is hard to believe his 88 was his highest Championship score of the season. He found his range early on by hitting the left-arm seamer, Mike Smith, for three boundaries in four balls. A straight-driven four off Martyn Balls' off-spin was a gem, but the late cuts, square drives and sweeps were just as effective. Prichard reached 50 off 45 balls and, helped along by a six over long leg off Mark Alleyne, contributed 78 to the century stand with Grayson. He was looking to fire Alleyne a repeat dose when he holed out. His 88 took just 73 balls and also included 15 fours.

Grayson, having played second fiddle to his hyperactive captain, was still seven short of a half-century at lunch after a session that produced 149 runs in 35 overs. Trying to work the ball to leg three overs after the break, however, he was leg before for 45.

With Ronnie Irani occupying the driving seat vacated by Prichard, Essex reached their fourth batting bonus point with more than 20 overs to spare and went on to their highest score this season. Robert Rollins, hitting six fours, and Mark Ilott, with three fours and a six in 32 balls, kept him company in breezy partnerships. When Irani ran himself out for 91, off 145 balls, he had hit six fours and a six.

Neil Williams, having Matt Windows playing on and Andrew Symonds caught at second slip with successive balls, quickly had Gloucestershire in trouble. Next over, the fifth of the innings, Ilott reduced them to four for three when Dominic Hewson also played on. But in deteriorating light, batting was not easy.