Onwards and upwards for rejuvenated Saltires

THE Grange is fast becoming a graveyard for English county hopes after Northamptonshire were swept away by the rejuvenated Scottish Saltires in Stockbridge last night.

The Saltires, so used to propping up the Totesport League, sit pretty this morning in seventh place in the C&G Trophy's north conference - a point ahead of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, and four clear of Northamptonshire - after back-to-back wins.

This one, by a margin of 52 runs, was a romp to savour.

This band of amateur Scots and Australian imports have rescued their season in some style. Not since the heady, halcyon days of spring 2003 had the Saltires won twice in a row in a county campaign.

Worcestershire were caught out in a truncated match two weeks ago and a similar fate here befell Northants, who loom as serious wooden spoon rivals.

But with five games left, the Saltires will feel that the only way is up. Perhaps a true impact can be made on a county competition for the first time. Corey Richards and Ryan Watson are in electric form, both recording half-centuries yesterday as the Saltires made 202-6, and the bowlers are proving fiercely difficult to get away when there are runs in the cupboard. Catches are sticking, too.

Richards is not the only overseas player with the heart for a battle. Ian Moran swept through Northants' lower order to dismiss them for 150 and claim remarkable figures of 5-28 plus a man-of-the-match award. But the visitors were swinging in desperation by then. The frontline bowlers had tightened a vice and Northants never looked like slipping free.

"We had a good win two weeks ago and the boys did well in midweek against Namibia, so that's three wins in a row and it's looking up," said Moran, who was excited about next week's double-header at Derbyshire and Yorkshire.

"We are full of confidence now and going down the road to face two good teams, but hopefully we can get two more wins and get people to notice us. Our cricket has improved a lot and there were four or five top catches today."

After overnight and morning rain the match was reduced to 36 overs per side, and Scotland were put in. But shortened situations seem to suit Richards down to the ground.

Asked again to prosper in a hurry, he produced a magical cameo of 73 to follow his 88 against Worcester. He promised the Saltires 500 runs from his nine games and is primed to honour the pledge after scoring 224 in the opening four matches, and at the rate of a cheetah. He has faced 206 balls.

Yesterday the 30-year-old Sydneysider opened with Ian Stanger and punched his first ball through long-on for four. Stanger's presence as a foil ended when he edged a quicker ball from Lance Klusener to slip, but 37 were already on the board. After ten overs Richards had moved on to 41 and the Saltires a healthy 56.

No3 Watson is notoriously vulnerable on zero and true to form he gave a chance first ball, chipping Klusener off his legs. Usman Afzaal leapt backwards to his left from square leg but Watson scrambled a single as the ball left the hand and hit the ground.

Thereafter, Watson is in the form of his life and despite having his shots restricted by the accuracy of Matthew Nicholson and Billy Shafayat, paced his 63 very nicely. At the other end Richards continued to make hay.

One of the Saltires' perennial shortcomings is puncturing the infield when the early restrictions are in place. Richards provided an object lesson, finding gaps freely as he reached 50 in the ninth over, with his tenth four and his third in successive balls. Twice he had slashed Ben Phillips over backward point before he off-drove him with a master's flourish.

There were more than a couple of edges, but they all count. Only the return of Nicholson, Richards' towering New South Wales team-mate, seemed to interfere with his rhythm and he flicked the third ball of his second spell to Jason Brown, who took a tumbling catch.

At this point the innings stalled rather as middle-order men fell on their swords. Fraser Watts showed scant respect for Nicholson as he twice drove aggressively at good-length balls, the second yielding a fatal edge. Colin Smith and Gavin Hamilton made it into double figures, if only just, on a day when all six Scots wickets fell to outfield catches. Smith lobbed Klusener to mid-wicket and Hamilton, having rolled back the years with a crashed four over mid-on, cut to point to give "Zulu" a third wicket. As so often, the Saltires were indebted to Watson for his full-blooded contribution. Stymied for a while, he kept the score ticking at four an over, then broke the shackles by pulling Shafayat for four and flicking a serene six into the trees.

He holed out for an invaluable 63 off 69 balls, allowing Paul Hoffmann to come in and do what he does best. His six off the last ball turned a target of 197 into 203. All five games in England yesterday were washed out and the weather was only vaguely better here. Choosing to bat second was a mistake, as Northants did not consider the likely return of cloud cover. They batted in perishing conditions in the gloom.

Not only that, they had to score at almost six runs an over and Hoffmann produced some prodigious in-swing to make life difficult from the start. The bowler got down well to make contact with a straight drive that ran out Rob Smith for one, then beat Afzaal comprehensively to spray his stumps.

Chris Rogers hit back for Northants but in truth they were never in it. Despite the wet grass not a single catch went down, Stanger pouching two classics on the run behind him and captain Craig Wright taking care of two steeplers. Dewald Nel, deservedly, got his first wicket of the season and after Ross Lyons added one, the tail was exposed and Moran enacted a swift kill.

It was an emphatic win that Matthew Engel, editor of Wisden and a Northants die-hard, might ponder when he next considers the expansion of the game.

SCOTTISH SALTIRES

I M Stanger c Rogers b Klusener9

C J Richards c Brown b Nicholson73

R R Watson c Rogers b Nicholson63

D F Watts c Rogers b Nicholson1

C J O Smith c Rogers b Klusener10

G M Hamilton c Nicholson b Klusener11

I A Moran not out11

P J C Hoffmann not out8

Extras b1 lb4 w11 pens 016

Total for 6 wkts (36 overs)202

Fall: 1-37, 2-109, 3-114, 4-136, 5-166, 6-190; Did Not Bat: C M Wright, R T Lyons

Bowling: Nicholson 7-0-32-3; Phillips 4-0-24-0; Klusener 8-0-34-3; Wigley 5-0-32-0; Brown 5-0-33-0; Shafayat 7-0-42-0

NORTHAMPTONSHIRE

R A White run out0

U Afzaal b Hoffmann19

B M Shafayat c C J O Smith b Moran27

D J G Sales c Stanger b Wright4

C J L Rogers c Stanger b Moran40

M H Wessels c C J O Smith b Nel24

L Klusener c Wright b Moran15

B J Phillips c Wright b Moran4

M J Nicholson b Lyons1

D H Wigley c Richards b Moran0

J F Brown not out0

Extras b3 lb3 w6 nb4 pens 016

Total (33.2 overs)150

Fall: 1-1, 2-37, 3-44, 4-54, 5-108, 6-132, 7-146, 8-150, 9-150

Bowling: Hoffmann 6-2-21-1; Nel 6-1-28-1; Wright 6-0-3-1; Moran 6.2-0-28-5; Lyons 7-0-29-1; Watson 2-0-15-0.