Irani in driving seat

Essex v Gloucestershire
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The Independent Online
I rather like Essex. There is a feel of heartland about it, and if this was America, Essex would take their cricket around county fairs. There'd be pick-up trucks with exhaust extensions in the car park instead of Cavaliers and Escorts, and country music in the interval. Not your modern hats, mind. Rather, good ol' boys like Waylon and Willie and Goochie.

Sadly - for the crowd though not for Gloucestershire - we had to settle for Graham Gooch as the warm-up act yesterday. He had already batted on Thursday and Friday, of course, and from the way he began yesterday there seemed no reason why he couldn't add heavily to his overnight 105 not out. It was not to be. Courtney Walsh, digging the ball in short and getting lift out of a moribund-looking pitch, 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 soon dispelled once Paul Prichard developed a taste for some ineffectual Gloucestershire bowling. There was simply no holding the Essex captain. By the time he was well caught by Tim Hancock on the long leg boundary, Prichard was outscoring his partner, Paul Grayson, at a rate of two to one.

Grayson had resumed the Essex innings with Gooch first thing yesterday because Darren Robinson, Gooch's overnight partner, had broken his finger batting against Walsh the previous evening. Consequently we had the statistical curiosity of three batsmen being involved as the Essex record opening partnership against Gloucestershire (180 by Gooch and Mike Denness in 1980) was passed. Gooch's dismissal in the 11th over of the morning, incidentally, left him 43 runs short of becoming the 10th batsman to score 44,000 runs, yet another milestone.

It was hard to believe Prichard's 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 Ball's off-spin, played off the front foot, was a beautiful stroke, but the late cuts and sweeps were just as effective in the 10 fours he hit in reaching 50 off 45 balls.

Helped along by a six over long leg off Mark Alleyne, Prichard contributed 78 to the century partnership of 108 balls with Grayson. He was looking to give Alleyne a repeat dose when he holed out, his 88 having taken 73 balls, with 15 fours and a six.

Grayson was still seven runs off his half-century at lunch after a morning session that produced 149 runs in 35 overs. He had batted selflessly, giving Prichard the strike, but trying to work ball to leg in the third over after lunch he was lbw for 45.

With Ronnie Irani occupying the driving seat vacated by Prichard, Essex reached their fourth batting point with more than 20 overs to spare. His 50, off 85 balls, included five fours plus a mighty six over long on off Richard Davis, and when rain briefly drove the players off after 117 overs, Essex were 135 runs ahead.

Chasing their fifth consecutive win, Essex have done well so far to overcome the time lost on Friday. They know a win here could see them on top of the table come tomorrow night.