When Leicestershire’s second string recorded an unparalleled trophy treble last season, it was the flicker of light their fans needed among the darkness that had enveloped the club.
The members of that successful side were expected in time to move to the first team and become the backbone for future endeavours. But as Lewis Hill clinched his maiden first-class century at the Oval, well aided by Ben Raine and Ned Eckersley, he may have advanced his cause earlier than expected.
Brought into the side last week for Niall O’Brien, who was otherwise occupied with Ireland ahead of their England ODI fixture, Hill made a half-century on debut yet wasn’t expected to participate in this game until an injury to Matthew Boyce called for a replacement Saturday morning. As is the cruel nature of sport, Boyce’s setback was Hill’s gain, the 24-year-old making a glittering career-best 126 off just 147 balls, and sharing a crucial 120-run sixth-wicket partnership with Raine, to further his claim of a full-time spot.
Indeed, it has been a busy couple of months for Hill, who signed a one-year contract extension in April, before even appearing in the Championship, to keep him at the club until 2016. These early performances will come as no surprise, though, to those who wrote his substantial Wikipedia entry, which states how during a Unicorn’s match with Middlesex he came “in at number five and swept the pants off Ollie Raynor to make a comfortable 31”.
A premonition in kind of events at the Kia Oval, Hill metaphorically pulling down Zafar Ansari’s pants, dispatching him for two swept sixes in an over to the short OCS Stand boundary, prior to reaching his century. “It was pretty special,” Hill said at the close. “From not playing yesterday to playing today, and to get a hundred, I’ll always remember it.
“My heart rate was going quite fast when I was in the 90s. Ask Ben [Raine], I was racing and he calmed me down a little bit. But the sweep shot is one of my options against spinners. With the short boundary it was inviting.
“It would have been nice to go bigger, 150, maybe 200, but I’m pretty happy.”
The sixes were part of a nine over offensive post lunch, when the bowling combination of Ansari and Gareth Batty went for 55 runs, Hill helping engineer Leicestershire into a promising position. But his departure, felled by a Matt Dunn yorker, triggered a collapse from 275-6 to 292 all out, as Mark Cosgrove’s team squandered an opportunity on a flat pitch to pick up vital batting points.
The total could have looked rather different if not for the morning session resistance of Eckersley and Hill, who put on 91 after the early departure of Angus Robson, bowled by Dunn. Although surviving a few scares, Hill fortunate to see an edge zip between the diving Gary Wilson and Kumar Sangakkara at first slip, the pair set about Surrey’s bowling with disciplined brutality.
Only Chris Tremlett, playing his first Championship game of the season, kept the run rate below three an over, extracting good bounce and pace to test the Leicestershire batsmen. But it was Dunn and Tom Curran that made the crucial breakthroughs, removing Eckersley two short of his half-century, swiftly followed by Cosgrove, Neil Pinner and Niall O’Brien either side of lunch.
Surrey’s lack of a fourth seamer was shown up in the afternoon though, Hill and Raine battering the spinners about, the former requiring 11 balls to move from 79 to his hundred. It was a landmark for the whole team, Raine punching the air enthusiastically upon completing the scampered single that took Hill to three figures. Yet they will know a greater first innings total was on offer, the final three wickets adding a single run once Batty had Clint McKay lbw.
The hosts looked in ominous form as the evening closed, Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen seeing them to 105-2, after Rory Burns and Ansari both fell to Raine. At the end, Pietersen sought out Hill to congratulate the youngster, the second such handshake he’s done recent weeks, with Daniel Lawrence of Essex the last recipient. How Pietersen would like the gesture returned tomorrow.