April 21, 2001

Neil Fairbrother defies the years to show his class

Despite the dreadful early spring weather, the CricInfo Championship has started well for the batsmen. Just two days into the summer, nine centuries have been scored. Still, one would have to travel up and down the country throughout the rest of the year to see a better knock than today's innings from Neil Fairbrother.

The diminutive left-hander made a breathtaking 179, including a partnership of 98 with an injured Gary Keedy who batted with a runner throughout.

Fairbrother's knock was an innings that had everything. He combined skilful running between the wickets with deft turns to the leg side, and added a collection of hearty Lancashire thumps.

Now into his 20th season as a first-class cricketer, Fairbrother began his knock cautiously. Timing the ball sweetly throughout, he got underway with some tidy flicks to leg. A partnership with Joe Scuderi blossomed, and Fairbrother began stroking the ball to the fence, turning the ball expertly to fine-leg and hitting powerfully behind square on the off side.

The innings looked in danger of falling away when a mini-collapse left the visitors 280-9. There were doubts as to whether Gary Keedy would bat after badly injuring his back on the opening day. Keedy did his duty however, and walked gingerly to the crease with Ryan Driver to run for him.

Fairbrother was unbeaten on 93 at the fall of the ninth wicket. At first, he was content to pick up singles toward the end of the over, leaving Keedy to face as few balls as possible. When he reached his century, Fairbrother was given a warm ovation from a reasonable crowd at the County Ground. The applause was to become more grudging, if still appreciative, as the next hour progressed.

Fairbrother changed his attitude once he had completed his century. Determined to get his county a match-winning lead, he was content to launch the ball to all parts. His footwork had been solid from the outset, moving way across towards off stump. As he progressed, his feet started to dance down the wicket, crashing the ball through the infield at will.

There was a sense that Fairbrother's efforts could come to an end at any time. His partner, rendered almost immobile, batted like a boy forced into a school match. With no backlift and little footwork, Keedy blocked bravely, and sneered as the increasingly desperate Somerset attack strayed wide.

Most of the time, Keedy was left to graze rigidly at square-leg, with Driver putting in a fine effort as runner. Fairbrother has always been fast, but it defies logic that a 37-year-old is able to scamper and turn with such ferocity. He called loudly and definitely, startling poor Driver who may have hoped for an afternoon nap. If he was still in the England team, Fairbrother would be amongst the fittest.

Toward the end of his knock, the boundaries began to flow. He blasted Joe Tucker over long on for six, and went onto the back foot and pulled with such venom that the two men on the leg side boundary were barely able to move before the ball struck the fence. Sauntering down the track, he also belted the ball through the covers with skill.

After reaching his century from 138 balls, he added a further 79 from 62 balls, striking 27 fours and a six. Keedy eventually fell, and the County Ground rose in appreciation of a marvellous knock from one of the most valuable county cricketers. Fairbrother is a fine exponent of the county game, and this innings was a wonderful advert for the CricInfo Championship.