Saif Zaib ton makes Northants safe as Surrey miss chance to extend lead

Surrey 421 (Amla 133, Curran 115, Keogh 4-51) and 48 for 1 drew with Northamptonshire 339 (Gay 145, Keogh 123) and 426 (Zaib 124, Vasconcelos 79, Procter 55)

A week earlier, Northamptonshire had been seconds away from drawing with Hampshire. On this occasion, they did stave off defeat, defying Surrey in the process. The upshot of both results is that the County Championship is reaching a nervewracking finale with Surrey’s lead over Hampshire whittled down to only eight points.

The last time Surrey met Northamptonshire, they blew them away by an innings within three days in early May. Saif Zaib, bereft of form, had not played in the Championship since, but he returned with conviction at Wantage Road with a defiant and measured hundred that will again bring hopes that this is his breakthrough innings.

It would be too glib to play down the quality of Zaib’s 124 from 203 balls on the grounds that this was another Northampton pitch which became slower and lower as the match progressed and, indeed, staged five individual hundreds. When Zaib came to the crease at 161 for 5, 15 overs from the close of the third day, Northants’ lead was a mere 79 runs and Surrey were salivating over the likelihood of an eighth win of the season. Surrey’s pace attack also demands respect on any surface and there was swing to be had on an overcast day. Zaib, 19 not out overnight, was up to the challenge as he marshalled the lower order in a methodical fashion that has not always been a feature of his game.

The two batters who have caused Northants such disappointment this season finally came good. Ricardo Vasconcelos‘ season had been unhinged by the responsibilities of captaincy (jettisoned after less than four months in mid-July) after Adam Rossington left for Essex in a spat about fitness levels. Zaib was just being Zaib, forever presented as an exciting talent since he played for the county at 15, but strangely unfulfilled nearly a decade later. Perhaps this time. Surely, he has never been as judicious.

Vasconcelos and Zaib took Northants four overs into the second new ball – their sixth-wicket stand worth 127 in 34 overs, at which point Vasconcelos was lbw, caught on the crease, to a big inswinger from Dan Worrall, the lead then 206 and Surrey’s notional run rate on an immediate chase only around three runs an over.

But give or take some playing and missing by Lizaad Williams in an invaluable eighth-wicket stand of 71, they forced few other opportunities. By the time Kemar Roach had Williams lbw, the game was dead.

Zaib’s only tremor had been when he was sent back by Vasconcelos and had to fling himself into the crease as Cameron Steel picked up from his own bowling in the off side and tried to fling down the stumps. Roach made one bounce to strike him on the glove when he was 88, the lead then 278 with 56 overs left, but the deflection fell safely. His on-drives, in particular, were balanced and considered and it was appropriate that this shot, against Gus Atkinson, brought up three figures, to follow his maiden century against Sussex last season and a List A hundred this summer against Essex. He finished with a crescendo, whacking Ryan Patel’s medium pace for successive sixes – a mental release – before falling to a catch at deep backward square attempting a third.

By then, the former Northants and England batter Alan Lamb was peppering the commentators with calls for a declaration and a run chase which might bring a home victory. But these are the days of eight points for a draw and finely-tuned declarations, which risk defeat in pursuit of victory, are largely extinct. Lamb’s approach brings better entertainment – and such enterprise has the official stamp of approval from the likes of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum – but while draw points remain at 50% of win points (compare the way football encouraged more attacking play by reducing them to 33%) there will be no change in approach.

By virtue of their staunch performance over all four days, Northants are guaranteed Division One safety (the mathematicians can cavil all they want) and that is better than many forecast at the beginning of the season. Zaib as good as confirmed that this had been their strategy against the Division One leaders from the outset. “We went with a game-plan to just try and bat and take time out of the game,” he said. “It was important to take my chance back in the side. I’ve struggled a little bit with Championship cricket. Surrey are arguably the best side in the country with some of the best bowlers, so this will be very special to me.”

Another factor that does not change is Surrey’s reliance on an all-seam attack with spin support in the hands of Will Jacks or, now that he has joined the England tour of Pakistan, Steel. There was enough turn for Steel, and indeed for Northants’ offspinner, Rob Keogh, to suggest that the spin of either Dan Moriarty or Amar Virdi would have been a useful weapon, but Surrey’s policy has taken them top of the table and they are not about to change it. And their fourth seamer and No. 8 – one TK Curran – had made a memorable maiden hundred in adversity the previous day and was never going to be flogged to death with the ball in his return from a stress fracture.

So the margin is eight points. Surrey face Yorkshire at Kia Oval, Hampshire prepare for the visit of Kent. The top two will feel that both are eminently winnable. And should that prove to be the case, the fear of relegation alongside Gloucestershire could yet be felt by both their opponents.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

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