Worcestershire 264 (Robinson 7/59) & 34/1 trail Sussex 373 (Pujara 136) by 75 runs
There was little fanfare on the streets of Worcester today: not many people knew.
In fact, I would hazard a guess that only a handful of passengers who alighted at Worcester Shrub Hill and Worcester Foregate Street today knew.
Not many people in the McDonald’s on the way to New Road knew, and maybe a few more, but not everyone who was staying at the Premier Inn overlooking the ground would have known.
But what was there to know? Well, a certain Australian batter named Steve Smith was making his debut with the bat for Sussex. Barring a miracle, he would bat today: the only question surrounded what time he would be brought to the crease.
Ali Orr and Tom Alsop got day two underway for Sussex, with the away side resuming on 63/1, trailing Worcestershire’s first innings by 201. Just seven minutes later, the pair had been dismissed by Joe Leach and Ben Gibbon in consecutive overs, bringing Indian international Cheteshwar Pujara and Smith to the crease.
It was fair to say the Worcestershire bowlers were going to have their work cut out, facing a fourth-wicket partnership with a combined 15946 runs and 49 centuries in Test matches.
Smith’s distinctive characteristics make it almost impossible for any bowler to have a second’s thought when bowling to him. In true fashion, it only took eight balls for him to agitate the spectators, something which English cricket fans will get accustomed throughout the summer.
A delay ensued as the umpires spotted neither Pujara nor Smith were wearing a stem guard, which constituted a violation of the ECB regulations. The break in play as a result was not to the pleasure of the onlookers, with Pears skipper Brett D’Oliveira starting a Viking clap whilst shouts of ‘get on with it’ and ‘sandpaper’ were heard from the stands.
Smith took full advantage of a rare wide delivery from Gibbon when play resumed, wonderfully cutting to the boundary to mark his first runs of the 2023 English summer.
Pujara and Smith are both batters who play with such a patience and elegance that would make you think that you could go out to the middle and replicate it yourself. The class did not let up as the partnership grew, with Smith only seeming to have to slightly push at a leg-side delivery from Matthew Waite to direct the ball to the boundary rope.
There was a bit more behind a textbook Pujara drive through the offside, with the result the same. A game of ‘anything I can do, you can do better’ was underway, with Smith certainly outdoing his partner with a similar shot, even holding the pose as he should after playing what can only be described as a delightful cover drive.
But was there trouble in paradise? Josh Tongue, who toured with the England Lions during the winter, beat Smith’s bat with consecutive deliveries before finally getting the better of the Australian to pin him in front, and take the all-important wicket. They say good things come in threes, which is a mantra I’m sure Tongue will be adopting from now on.
Smith marked Tongue’s 160th first-class dismissal, but none will ever be memorable than that one. Pujara pushed on despite this, continuing to bat with a temperament reserved only for the few, moving onto 35 with an excellent on-drive that sailed past mid-on.
James Coles (14) came and went, and tight pre-lunch bowling was safely negotiated by Pujara and new batter, Oli Carter. The shackles were seemingly off when play resumed, with the Indian cutting through point for four, and Carter hitting his first boundary through a controlled edge off his 27th delivery.
Pujara then moved to his fifty with a pull shot, before picking up a second boundary in the over with an excellent back foot punch through the off-side. Carter supported his captain well, but fell just five balls after play resumed following a rain delay, with Waite breaching his defences.
With four wickets remaining, the bonus point still 37 runs away, Pujara began to motor, upper cutting Tongue’s first ball after his reintroduction for six, before ending the over with a wonderful pull to add four more. This attacking intent was matched by new man Fynn Hudson-Prentice, with the pair quickly reaching the 250-run threshold.
A first-innings lead quickly followed, with Pujara keeping the score ticking over nicely as he edged closer to a third century of the season. A cut off the part-time spin bowling of Brett D’Oliveira brought him within a boundary before a call of ‘tea’ from the in-ground announcer left him stranded of 97 not out. This only delayed the inevitable, with a clip into the leg side taking him to his eighth three-figure score in a Sussex shirt from just twelve matches.
Another bonus point was earned, bringing up the hundred run partnership with Hudson-Prentice in the process. The all-rounder also reached his half-century, but fell soon after to Waite for 54. Ollie Robinson came out swinging, taking 16 runs off the first three deliveries of the 86th over, before Leach extracted some revenge with Jack Haynes taking a juggling catch on the boundary.
It will be a day to remember for Tongue, also taking the wicket of Pujara who feathered behind to Roderick for 136: his quality once again proved the turning point in the match. Henry Crocombe was the last wicket to fall, giving the away side a healthy first-innings lead, and asking Worcestershire to navigate a tricky few overs.
This would prove too much for Jake Libby, who edged an Ollie Robinson delivery to Pujara in the slips for five, giving the England international his eighth wicket of the match. Ed Pollock and Azhar Ali did well to dig in, especially given the delay to bad light which many believed marked the end of play. Worcestershire still face an uphill struggle, trailing by 75 runs.