Mullally applies finishing polish

Middlesex 190 Leicestershire 36-1
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The Independent Online
Bad weather and Leicestershire have not always been cosy bedfellows this season, and rain has already deprived them of a certain win against Hampshire. Yesterday, when their closest rivals, Surrey, were washed out at The Oval, the wet weather held off long enough for them to dismiss Middlesex for 190. That earned them four bowling points and thrust them to the brink of a second County Championship despite a day curtailed by bad light that prevented play after tea.

As they have done all season, Leicestershire remained focused on the game in front of them. At 36 for 1 there is still much to do, but with the remaining outcomes being reduced elsewhere by the session, there was little else to distract them apart from the announcement of a six-figure sponsorship deal with the newly privatised rail company Midland Mainline. For a club who have been without a sponsor all season, the deal is further evidence that the title is surely destined for Grace Road.

In any case, they will not want to win by default and, undeterred by the loss of the toss, they set about dismantling Middlesex's batting with a combination of aggressive bowling and smart catching. The former was spearheaded by Alan Mullally, whose 4 for 53 from 18 overs proved a staunch effort considering the blustery conditions.

Predictably, considering the vital nature of this match, the day began with some controversy: Mike Gatting, after a long consultation with the grim trio of Angus Fraser, Keith Brown and Mark Ramprakash, decided to bat on what looked an emerald carpet of a pitch. With three spinners in their side, there was little else they could do.

In fact, the surface played fairly true, with only the occasional ball bouncing and seaming: the first of which - in David Millns' opening over - brought out some early aggression: an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter between the bowler and batsman coming after a concerted appeal for caught behind had been turned down.

If Millns had been wronged, the injustice was soon righted, when Paul Weekes flashed an edge to Phil Simmons at second slip, who promptly palmed it on to Vince Wells, who managed to grasp it before it hit the turf.

It was the first of three catches for the opening bat, Wells, who also weighed in with two wickets. It is a flexibility that has been the hallmark of the home team's cricket and one which has helped keep personnel changes to a minimum - a rare phenomenon at a club more famous for departures than arrivals.

Good bowling was also at the root of Middlesex's demise, though Mark Ramprakash showed what was possible by scoring a 127-ball 71. His innings owed its scope to a dash of fortune, a watchful defence and an occasional lusty blow.

Dropped on 26 by the wicketkeeper, Paul Nixon, as he tried to intercept an edge heading towards first slip's left calf, Ramprakash kept a long, lone vigil on Middlesex's behalf. But while he cautiously applied himself, Mullally began to wreak havoc with a combination of well-directed bouncers and a snaking full length that proved too much for the visitors' early order.

Peter Wellings, a second-team player from Staffordshire, dragged one on after twice being struck on the helmet, while Gatting, after being similarly peppered, was caught behind, tentatively pushing at a wide one. Owais Shah, the 17-year-old soon to be wintering in Australia with England 'A', followed lbw soon after, a decision that looked harsh considering the angle of Mullally's attack meant the ball would have pitched outside leg stump.

Only an injury to Simmons - he twisted his ankle while bowling - caused Leicestershire any concern, though with Middlesex reeling at 76 for 6, the thought of the pitch inspector climbing into his helicopter must have passed through James Whitaker's mind. Both fears were quickly allayed however: a swift return by Simmons and some brutal cudgelling by Ramprakash, who blasted two soaring sixes over midwicket, easing Leicestershire's discomfort as Surrey kicked their heels.

Reports, scoreboard, page 27