Stuart Carlisle: A personal gift
Stuart Carlisle of Zimbabwe celebrated his 31st birthday in the best possible way: with a century under difficult circumstances to give Zimbabwe the lead in their match against Worcestershire at the New Road ground.
Stuart, who almost certainly won his place on the tour after a season out of the international side with a maiden double-century in Zimbabwe's Logan Cup competition a month ago, played almost certainly the best of his four first-class centuries. The best innings of his life was surely his undefeated 62 that led Zimbabwe to a tight four-wicket victory against India in Harare two years ago, but none of his first-class centuries have been more hardly fought than this one, given the circumstances and difficult conditions.
Stuart is perhaps a fairly late developer, and he feels he is now approaching his prime. During the first five years of his career he was at university in South Africa and playing for Zimbabwe at the same time, and in retrospect he feels he would have done his cricket more good had he been a professional cricketer from the start - but in those days Zimbabwe cricket could afford to pay few fulltime. He has worked hard on his game over the years, and that application was only too evident over more than seven hours at the crease for 139 not out at the close of the second day's play.
The pitch was not a good one, having been used before - not the most satisfactory welcome for a touring team. "The one side was not good ever since the match started: there was a patch just outside the off stump where it was hitting the seam and just bouncing up, and you got the odd off-cutter as well. So it was very hard for the batsmen; you could see on their side as well they struggled many times. I think we should have bowled fuller.
"Then this afternoon, the other end of the pitch, just after lunch, started popping up a bit as well, with the odd ball keeping low. So both ends now are pretty inconsistent. It was certainly a fighting pitch.
"My game plan from the start was quite simple, just to play ball by ball, stick at it as long as I could. I kept it very tight; I just kept my cut shot, because the pitch was slow and the occasional one bouncing, and anything off my hips as runs, and if there was anything really full drive it straight. But it's a very hard pitch to drive, and that's why we could only get a couple of drives away through the cover region.
"Then play with soft hands and the full face of the bat. That was my personal game plan. You could see how some of the young guys pushed outside off stump and nicked off to first or second slip. So it was just a very hard wicket and I had to keep it very tight outside off."
Worcestershire played three mainline fast-medium bowlers in Mark Harrity, Kabir Ali and Andrew Hall. Stuart says, "All three were pretty good seamers. They keep you on the back foot and then try to throw a couple up. Four out of six balls are pretty fullish when they try to get it to swing. It wasn't swinging too much, actually - everything was off the pitch. They're always at you, so I think all three seamers actually bowled pretty well. Andrew Hall bowled well; the left-armer, young Harrity, hits the deck a bit harder, and when he bowled a few more short balls, when Tatenda was batting, it made us think a bit more.
"Off-spinner Gareth Batty didn't spin the ball too much; it wasn't turning out there too much, so he just varied his pace, trying to get us to come forward or half-forward. He has a ball that goes straight on and bounces a bit. He wasn't too hard to face, mainly because it wasn't turning."
Stuart paid tribute to his two main partners of the day, wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu (57) and Travis Friend (39). Taibu is "a gutsy little guy," he said. "I got a hundred partnership with Tatenda and just two short of a hundred with Travis. So it was good I had at least two guys to stick with me. That's what it's all about, partnerships, and it's very important.
"And we had to rely on a bit of luck there: there were a couple of spilled catches, but I didn't worry too much about that, because one or two of them were balls that came awkwardly off the pitch and bounced a bit. You shouldn't really have to play on a pitch like this at Test level, but it was good for us because it made us really work hard on our batting."
Stuart was not sure what the game plan would be for the third day, but says, "It's going to get harder and harder. I think we'll try to get as many runs as we can. That's what I'd do, but we'll have to wait and see."