Irani into the breach

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The Independent Online
SINCE 1979, Essex and Middlesex have won the Championship 11 times between them, creating a southern dynasty so powerful it dominated the England team. But as England's power and player base shifts northwards, the southern boom threatens to go bust, as both sides tentatively go about replacing ageing masonry with new bricks.

Even in stronger days, Essex never allowed their supporters to settle into complacency, alternating powerful displays with gross ineptitude, but nearly always with an enviable capacity to come back from the brink. Middlesex rarely veer so wildly, and yesterday forced their opponents to follow on 266 runs behind, after some typically steady bowling from their spinners.

Essex, beginning six wickets down and still needing 189 to make Middlesex bat again, got off to a bad start when the injured Mark Ilott spooned Emburey to backward cover in the fifth over of the day. Peter Such quickly followed, caught at short midwicket to give Emburey his fourth wicket of the innings.

Emburey, setting three men deep on the leg-side, gave the ball enough air to climb Everest, inviting the batsmen to find ways of combating the steep bounce and increasing turn from the River End. Phil Tufnell was quicker and less rhythmic, though he too got the odd ball to bite off the beige pitch.

Then followed a typical Essex ninth-wicket stand of 54 between Mr Belligerent of Bolton, Ronnie Irani, and Darren "Mad Dog" Cousins, a batsman with few graces but many air shots. Irani mixed stout defence with all-out attack, striking two huge sixes off Tufnell, before a miscued pull to mid-wicket ended his defiant knock of 69.

Essex, listing badly 266 in arrears, were soon in deeper trouble when invited to bat again. Tufnell could not conceal a little yelp of delight when he initiated the breach, as Gooch was bowled by a ball that skipped on with the arm.

A quick flurry of wickets just before tea, including those of the skipper Paul Prichard, caught behind off Paul Weekes, and Jonathan Lewis, leg before to one that turned from Emburey, left the home side needing a small miracle to see the game into tomorrow.

Enter again the ambitious Irani to stem the flow with yet more determined strokeplay and his second half-century of the match. Two fifty partnerships, first with Rollins and then with Ilott, thwarted Middlesex's hopes of a day off, and Essex ended only nine behind, with Irani, undefeated on 62, leading from the front. Essex have bounced back well but, weather permitting, this game is Middlesex's and has been from day one.