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Tim Wigmore at The Oval
June 2, 2014
Surrey 134 for 2 (Burns 79) trail Worcestershire 476 (Moeen 162) by 342 runs
This was a curious day, the sort when anticipation trumps action. There was the beguiling prospect of watching Saeed Ajmal bowl. After looting 28 wickets at 13 apiece this season, his visit to The Oval, scene of 219 of Saqlain Mushtaq's first-class wickets, was one that filled Surrey with fear and dread. After Worcestershire had lifted their first innings to 476, there seemed a grim inevitability about it all.
But, for one day at least, Ajmal was the dog with plenty of bark but no bite. Or, at least, that was how it seemed until the day's final ball: Rory Burns could not resist wafting outside off stump, and Daryl Mitchell nonchalantly plucked the ball out of the air at first slip.
The end was a shame, for Burns, in alliance with Zafar Ansari, had played Ajmal with admirable calm and restraint. They never looked comfortable - few can ever make that boast against the Pakistani - but decisive foot movement, allied to the phlegmatic recognition that being deceived was inevitable, made for a commendable defence.
Ansari and Burns even achieved the rare feat of forcing Ajmal to switch ends. After seven overs from the Vauxhall End, he moved to the Pavilion End in search of greater bounce. It took until his 10th over for the spell to weaken, just a fraction, as Burns followed a square cut - the first boundary Ajmal conceded - with a neat clip to the leg side for three. But eventually his relentlessness was rewarded.
When England Lions selection should have beckoned, the 2014 season has instead brought struggle for Burns. He had mustered a top score of 53 not out in the first six Championship matches; losing his opening partner Graeme Smith hardly helped.
In circumstances not typical of Division Two - as if Ajmal was not enough, Jack Shantry produced an opening spell of genuine hostility - Burns produced a reminder of his considerable gifts. At his best, he is meticulously organised, but there were signs of a more expansive game as he caressed two balls from Ross Whiteley to midwicket late in the day.
After Arun Harinath fell early, fending off a vicious lifter from Shantry, Ansari accompanied Burns in a 127-run stand. There is no denying that Ansari possesses a rare package of gifts. At the age of 22, he has taken a first-class five-for with his left-arm spin, has a degree from Cambridge, and - with Hashim Amla missing for this game, believed to be on the cusp of the South Africa Test captaincy - is now batting at No. 3 for Surrey. He showed the technique for the task here, even if spectators on a dreary day may have hoped for a little less stoicism.
There was rather more excitement at the end of Worcestershire's innings. Just as he had done on the first day, Moeen Ali hit the first ball he received from Gareth Batty for a boundary. It sailed over long-on for six - one of Moeen's five. Batty would have feared plenty of repeats when he shelled Moeen at square leg on 162 but Matthew Dunn found extra pace to take the edge and Gary Wilson took a superb tumbling catch.
After Moeen's dismissal, a little of the sting was taken out of Worcestershire's innings. On a largely lifeless surface - the intention, no doubt, being to nullify Ajmal - Surrey did well to take the last six wickets for 117 runs. Chris Tremlett will enjoy plenty of pitches more suited to his game but bowled with consistency and skill - he moved the ball both ways on occasions - and deserved more than his three wickets. Batty matched that haul when he ended Ajmal's harum-scarum effort. His batting is rather less effective than his bowling, but it is almost as enthralling to watch.
Amid all the talk about England wicketkeepers, Ben Cox, five years into his county career but still only 22, may be worth watching over the coming years. He played beautifully for 64, including a short-arm jab for six off Tremlett and some attractive cover drives, to lift Worcestershire to 476. A fourth victory of the season, and a tightening grip on the promotion places, is conceivable.
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