Gloucestershire moved into a strong position on day three of the Championship match against Leicestershire at the Cheltenham festival, setting the visitors 325 to win after posting 321 in their second innings. At the close, Leicestershire had reached 11/0 from 8 overs.
The home side have to thank all-rounder Benny Howell, who celebrated his marriage last weekend by scoring his maiden century and shared in a superb match-changing fifth wicket stand of 139 with Kieran Noema-Barnett, who scored 61.
For much of the day such a large total looked unlikely as the pattern of grinding out runs on a slow pitch was repeated; patient batting in front of an appreciative festival crowd was the order of the day. But after tea the home batsmen stepped up several gears and scored an extra 119 at over five an over (in contrast to the pre-tea period where runs had come a a little over two per over) to make the fourth day task altogether more challenging for the Leicestershire batters.
Gloucestershire began the day on 54/2 in their second innings, 57 ahead of Leicestershire from 27 overs with both Michael Klinger and Gareth Roderick 11 not out. Klinger had an early let-off when he edged Ben Raine and wicket- keeper Lewis Hill put down a straightforward chance with the Australian on 21. The anguished reaction of the Foxes’ close fielders suggested that they knew it could be a costly miss.
The visitors claimed their first wicket when Hill hung on for what has become the festival’s trademark dismissal – caught behind, from Clint McKay for 19. 94/3 was effectively 94/4 as captain Ian Cockbain was unable to play any further part in the game due to his fractured wrist.
When Benny Howell joined Klinger it was clear that the policy was one of steadily accumulating a total to give the home bowlers something to bowl at. Howell curbed his normal attacking tendencies to the extent that at lunch he had compiled a patient 14 from 55 balls. Klinger too was content to wait for the occasional loose delivery and at lunch had scored 46 from 117 balls. It was hardly exciting cricket, but the amount of times the ball passed the outside of the bat told the tale of difficult batting conditions which the home batsmen had negotiated well.
Just as Gloucestershire seemed to be inching their way to a competitive total Klinger aimed a drive at Charlie Shreck and thin-edged to Hill behind the stumps. His 60 was scored from 138 balls and was the clearest evidence that the only way to prosper on a slow, seaming pitch was painstaking graft. 131/4 brought in Kieran Noema-Barnett who immediately looked more at home than his rather modest record with Gloucestershire suggests. His cover driving was delightful and he showed a side of his cricketing persona that the home fans had not previously seen. Together with Howell, he nudged his side closer to the 220 target that coach Richard Dawson had set as a competitive score.
After tea, the Gloucestershire fifth wicket partnership changed gear perceptibly. Four boundaries came in the first two overs and Noema-Barnett quickly reached his first half-century for the county, scored from 86 balls with four fours and one six. Stage posts were being passed: Dawson’s 220 target; the 100 partnership; Howell’s previous highest first class score of 83.
With the score on 269 the fifth wicket stand of 139 ended when Noema-Barnett was caught at cover by Greg Smith off Charlie Shreck for an excellent 60. Howell reached his maiden first-class century from 202 balls with twelve fours and one six. The extent to which he showed the two sides of his batting talent is shown in the figures. His first 50 came in 156 balls, his second in just 46. However, the very next ball after reaching his century he was lbw to McKay for 102 at 284/6.
McKay then bowled Jack Taylor for 10 and Craig Miles skied a catch to Cosgrove at 306/8 to give Shreck his fifth wicket. When Ben Raine had Liam Norwell caught behind, the innings closed on 321, a lead of 324. It was many more than looked likely at lunch. Shreck’s figures of 5/82 from 34 overs were the best of the Leicestershire bowling group.
With a fine day forecast for tomorrow a result in this match looks likely, with Gloucestershire clear favourites to win both their matches at the Cheltenham festival for the first time since 1998. But Leicestershire, seeking their second win of the summer, will take heart from the hint that batting looked a little easier as the afternoon progressed today. An exciting day is in prospect.