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George Dobell at Taunton
April 14, 2011
Stumps Warwickshire 416 for 6 (Chopra 174*, Maddy 67, Willoughby 3-73) v Somerset
An elegant century from Varun Chopra stole the initiative for Warwickshire on the opening day of their championship match against Somerset at Taunton. Chopra, who finished the day unbeaten with a career-best 174 to his name, led Warwickshire to full batting bonus points for the first time since September 2009. For a side that failed to pass 400 in a single first innings last season, that represents quite an achievement. Indeed, the five batting bonus points that Warwickshire have already gathered puts them well on the road to over-hauling their paltry total of just 20 in the whole of last year.
But if this was a pleasing day for Warwickshire, it was a bitterly disappointing performance from Somerset. Having won the toss and inserted their visitors on a green-looking pitch, they did nothing to justify their billing as pre-season favourites for the championship title.
Of most concern was the performance of Ajantha Mendis. The Sri Lankan endured an awful day, conceding 24 in no-balls and delivering a fearful number of long-hops and full-tosses on the way to conceding 124 from his 24 overs. He was quite unrecognisable from the man who finished the recent World Cup as the most economical regular bowler.
Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances. For a start Mendis only landed in the UK on Wednesday and could be forgiven for showing signs of jet-leg. More pertinently, this was the first time he had bowled with a Dukes ball which, for a man armed with so many subtle variations, clearly presented a sizable challenge. But, even that slightly charitable explanation, does little to explain his recurrent no-ball problems.
So, was Marcus Trescothick's decision to insert Warwickshire wrong? Perhaps. But, as Somerset coach Andy Hurry explained, the theory was that if the ball was to do anything in this game, it would be in the first 90 minutes. Certainly the pitch shows every sign of having reverted to the batting paradise of 2009 and there's little reason to think it will deteriorate.
But it would be wrong to blame Somerset's new ball bowlers, either. They actually performed quite well in the opening hour, seeing Ian Westwood push an edge to slip and forcing Warwickshire to proceed with great caution.
Instead, credit is due to Chopra. Immensely watchful early on, he took 27 balls to get off the mark and, in the opening hour, left the ball with admirable patience and discipline. Having done the hard work, he produced a selection of delightful strokes as the Somerset attack - the admirable Charl Willoughby and, to a lesser extent, Steve Kirby aside - waned alarmingly.
Three times in an over Chopra cut Mendis for four, while when Peter Trego dropped short he was pulled, dismissively, for six high into the Somerset Stand. Mendis was also pulled for two sixes, while some of the cover drives Chopra played in the afternoon session would have made David Gower proud. It was the first time in his first-class career he had batted throughout a day's play.
Afterwards he explained Warwickshire's policy on the second day would be simply to bat for as long as possible and hope that 'scoreboard pressure' might weigh heavily on Somerset. Chopra gave just one chance. On 82, Jos Buttler put down a tough chance at slip off Trego, while Hussain, at mid-on, also put him down when he had 97 off Kirby only to see the umpire signal no-ball. It was that sort of day for Somerset.
Since marking his championship debut in 2006 with a century, 23-year-old Chopra's career has not progressed as he might have hoped. A former captain of England U19, great things were expected of him yet, until this innings, he had made only one other championship century, in 2008 and has struggled to command a first team place.
He followed the route of Nick Knight, 15 years earlier, in defecting from Essex to Edgbaston in search of greater opportunity, but passed 50 just once in 18 championship innings last season. Already in this innings he's scored almost 50% of the runs he scored in the whole 2010 championship season. Oddly, all three of his championship centuries have come against an attack containing Steve Kirby.
Chopra won good support during a stand of 89 for the second wicket with William Porterfield, 155 for the third with Darren Maddy and 96 for the sixth with Tim Ambrose. Porterfield, on his Warwickshire championship debut, timed the ball sweetly and looked impressively solid until clipping to square-leg just before lunch, while Maddy cut with power and looked back to his best after a horrible 2010 season. Having just swept Mendis for four, he dragged on the next ball attempting a repeat. Ambrose, too, who averaged just 13 in last year's competition, seemed to have rediscovered his form, until Willoughby, armed with the new ball, accounted for him with one angled across.
Such moments of success were few and far between for Somerset, however. Though Kirby persuaded one to bounce and take the shoulder of Jim Troughton's bat and Rikki Clarke edged a full length one angled across him, this was - resoundingly - Warwickshire's day. Particualrly bearing in mind how woeful their batting was last season.
Somerset are not out of the game, however. This pitch looks full of runs and, over the last few years, a score of 400 could be considered par at Taunton. If they can strike early on the second day, they could yet dismiss Warwickshire for a manageable total.
Meanwhile Somerset's new chief executive, Guy Lavender, was enjoying his first match-day at the club. An impressive fellow, Lavender left the army at the rank of Lt-Col having seen service in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He inherits a club with big plans. The new, 450-seater Ondaatje Stand takes Taunton's capacity to 8,500 and, in the words of Andy Nash, marks the halfway point in the ground's development. Over the next five years, the plan is to increase the capacity to 15,000 (partially through the use of temporary seating) and bring Test cricket to Taunton. The remaining development will be funded not through borrowing, but through partnership with a hotelier.
While that might sound optimistic, there is some logic in the plan. As Nash explains, why stage a Test against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh at a ground with a capacity of 25,000? Why not create a better atmosphere in more intimate surroundings and allow the people of the south-west the opportunity to enjoy Test cricket?
While English cricket needs another Test ground like the world needs an update on Peter Andre's love life, it's a vision that does make some sense from a Somerset perspective.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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