By tea on the last day of a game badly interrupted by rain, Surrey – hot favourites for the title – were on top of a Championship game for the first time this season.
Warwickshire's wickets were falling without their batsmen having established a convincing lead, and Surrey were within four wickets of setting up a finale as exciting as last year's, when Warwickshire won against the odds by 31 runs with only 11 balls to spare.
It was not to be. Nick Knight had batted like a curmudgeon, refusing Surrey an inch for four hours before feasting off the bowling of Mark Ramprakash, Ali Brown, Ian Ward, and even, finally, Alec Stewart, who passed the keeper's pads to Adam Hollioake. What might have been a fine Championship game ended in farce.
Knight was fortunate in the end to record his 30th hundred with a six off a disgraceful ball from Stewart, but there was no more luck on offer. Surrey had not been able to make any and Warwickshire didn't need any. You could count the spectators scattered around The Oval, and they had no luck at all.
Alex Tudor had made a result plausible by taking three of the first four wickets in Warwickshire's second innings. Saqlain Mushtaq made it possible by taking two wickets off the first and third balls of the 40th over, both off identical prods to Hollioake at silly point, and Warwickshire were 140 ahead with 33 overs left. Game on.
A result had seemed improbable when Surrey were all out 10 runs short of a fifth batting point after adding 41 runs in 43 minutes. Thirty were scored by Tudor, whose 55 was made up of a series of 10 delightful boundaries to all parts of the ground, but most memorably off the back foot through the covers. This shot was reminiscent of his memorable 99 not out against New Zealand at Edgbaston in 1999. That seemed like a good first act in a long Test career. No such luck. One of the convictions that unites the Surrey dressing room is that Tudor has been shockingly badly treated by Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher.
The situation now seemed right for the pleasing prospect of watching three of England's most interesting young batsmen. Mark Wagh was the first of them. He is a tall, elegant striker of the ball and he soon drove Tudor twice to the mid-off boundary. They were mouth-watering shots, in the mould of Michael Vaughan. But Tudor raised his game and Wagh let his concentration lapse. On 19, he raised his head, swung and was caught at second slip.
That was disappointing, but Wagh's place was taken by Ian Bell, transformed from a lad of great promise to an enigma in less than 12 months. He has been batting, says Warwickshire's influential Australian coach John Inverarity, like "a busted arse." Bell's problem is that he gets square on to fast bowling on or nearby the off stump, and he is working patiently with Inverarity to eradicate the flaw. He is, fortunately, a young man. Inverarity, quite the most distinguished-looking county coach – he ecently retired from his head- master's job in Perth – is one of the shrewdest batting doctors in the business. But pace was not the problem yesterday. Bell misread Saqlain's spin, shouldered his bat to a ball he expected to pass by off stump and was bowled for 13.
The chance to look at the third member of Warwickshire's young middle order was curtailed when Jim Troughton was out second ball, bowled by Tudor. Among all the talented players on show, young and old, Tudor was most convincing of all.
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