Fraser's fragile back adds to Gatting's woes

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reports from Taunton

Somerset 306-8 v Middlesex

What was a sorry day for Middlesex might turn out to be a worrying one for England. Gus Fraser, reckoned to be the fittest of England's touring quick bowlers this winter had twice to leave the field with a back strain. He returned later to insist that he was suffering no more than a little stiffness and, with the new ball, dismissed Keith Parsons with his first delivery.

Don Bennett, the Middlesex coach, had admitted: "There is a back problem. The fact that he had to leave the field twice is a little worrying."

As Middlesex's other touring seam bowler, Richard Johnson, is to see a back specialist, before he gets a final clearance, it is not difficult to imagine the alarm bells starting to ring at Lord's.

What is unlikely to be seen at Lord's, for a while, is the Championship pennant. Despite the BBC's weather maps, that displayed bucketing rain over Canterbury, all that reached the County Ground here were reports of continuous play, of a boastful Warwickshire score and of clattering Kent wickets. All that is needed now, unless rain intervenes again, is the mathematical confirmation.

Even the overnight news that Somerset's most feared bowler, Mushtaq Ahmed, was away with a virus was balanced, for Middlesex, by Andy Hayhurst's winning of the toss and batting first on a pitch about as responsive as Plasticine.

It was then that Fraser emphasised his enormous value to county and country with a spell of 3 for 17 in 46 balls: Marcus Trescothick edged behind, Peter Bowler lost his off stump to a superb break-back, and Piran Holloway, after 10 overs of fireworks, padded up to the wrong ball.

Once the initial shine and hardness had left the ball, Middlesex's bowlers struggled in a damp and misty climate. The spinners had neither turn nor bounce and the seamers, in rotation, could bowl only line and length and hope for error.

Mark Feltham, tempting Richard Harden and Andy Hayhurst outside the off- stump, was cut frequently either side of Mike Gatting in the gully, who became increasingly red-faced and angry. When Middlesex's captain took himself off to third man, Hayhurst cut Feltham again, just wide of Gatting's new post. The glare was volcanic.

A stand of 113 in 44 overs was eventually broken when Harden tried the shot once too often, a nimbler fielder holding the catch at cover. Dion Nash, in lively form, bowled Hayhurst.

Somerset's resistance was a reminder of their nearly successful season. What they might have accomplished had Andy Caddick and Andre van Troost been able to fulfil their expected quotas of wickets will be the subject of much winter speculation. They would like to re-sign Mushtaq as their overseas professional again - he could have reached his 100 wickets had he been fit to play in this match - if Pakistan do not select him for their visit here next summer.

Middlesex, too, have had a nearly season, and although Gatting will lead again next year, there will be changes. It is hard to see how such outstanding prospects as their England Under-19 pair, Umer Rashid, the left-arm spinner, and David Nash, the prolific wicketkeeper- batsman, can be left out for long.

With Fraser having to stay on the field for almost two hours, in order to take the new ball, Gatting had to wait until early evening for his next assault with the ever-dependable Gus, shrugging off what the selectors will pray is no more than a touch of autumnal rheumatics, immediately producing the needed ball. When he bowled Rob Turner, four overs later, in an early twilight he had figures of 5 for 34, well worthy of that hot bath.