Wickets tumble at Canterbury
Wickets tumble at Canterbury

Leicestershire’s Ned Eckersley took five catches and top-scored on an attritional but fascinating opening day of Specsavers County Championship cricket against title-chasing Kent in Canterbury.

On a day when 16 wickets fell, Leicestershire went in at stumps on 149 for six with Eckersley unbeaten with 45 as the Foxes, after skittling Kent for 104, garnered a precious 45-run lead to take into day two.

Responding to Kent’s quickfire 37.5 over first innings, Leicestershire lost their first wicket to the third ball of their reply when Harry Dearden edged behind off the bowling of Harry Podmore.

With 17 on the board Colin Ackermann, seemingly transfixed by a Darren Stevens away-swinger, dutifully followed the line to steer a catch to Zak Crawley at third slip.

The experienced duo of Mark Cosgrove and Paul Horton joined forces to add 30 until Horton nibbled at one from Ivan Thomas to be caught behind. Then Cosgrove departed soon after, lbw to a Grant Stewart in ducker that may well have missed the left-hander’s leg stump.

Leicestershire’s fifth-wicket partners Neil Dexter (41) and Ned Eckersley added 70 either side of tea to bring some normality to the game and take their side into the lead before, Kent served to spin for the first time in the match.

However, Joe Denly’s opening over leaked 10 runs and he was immediately replaced by Thomas, who broke the stand and bagged his second scalp of the afternoon with his second ball of a new spell by plucking out Dexter’s off stump with a leg-cutter.

Denly was entrusted with the day’s final over and he made an immediate impact by having Raine caught at slip to lift Kentish spirits late in the day.

Kent, batting first after an uncontested toss, might have lost opener Sean Dickson in the sixth over but Leicestershire keeper Eckersley downed a tough diving chance off Ben Raine.

Nine balls later Eckersley atoned for his blunder by catching a more tricky chance off the same bowler when Daniel Bell-Drummond feathered a late away-swinger for the keeper to dive in front of slip and pouch the chance.

Raine’s next delivery, another full away-swinger, squared up Heino Kuhn into a crab-like defensive prod and plucked out off stump and send the South African packing for a golden duck.

Denly duly survived the hat-trick but, with only five against his name, the right-hander nibbled an airy drive through to the keeper against Zak Chappell to make it 44 for three.

Raine gave way after a spell of 7-1-20-2 to be replaced at the Nackington Road End by Gavin Griffiths, who soon gave Eckersley his third catch of the opening session.  Angling one in from wide of the crease, Griffiths forced Dickson to spar outside off and nick behind.

Kent skipper Sam Billings looked solid in reaching double figures but he then failed to smother a Chappell lifter and played the ball onto the base of his off stump.

Stevens was given a life on five when Eckersley downed another chance diving leg-side off Chappell, but he instantly made amends by pouching a fourth catch when Crawley feathered the very next delivery to send Kent into lunch on 73 for six.

The home demise continued after the resumption as the hosts lost their last for wickets for 31 runs and in the space of 8.5 overs. Podmore and Stewart went leg before to consecutive Dexter deliveries, leaving Muhammad Abbas and Raine to polish the job off. Raine finished with three for 39, Chappell three for 14, while Dexter took two for 11.

Ivan Thomas, who took two of the six Leicestershire wickets to fall, said: “It was a tricky day for us at the start batting in tricky conditions. It looked a good pitch to bowl on and it was an uncontested toss, and it showed how tough it was with us being bowled out for 104.

“We fought back well throughout the afternoon and we all feel the game’s very much in the balance.

“I don’t necessarily think there were many loose shots from our guys, but judging by the replays we received some really good nuts. That said, whether it was a 104 all-out pitch is another question. I think you sometimes have to give the opposition credit for how well they bowled.

“We did OK with the ball in the overcast conditions and when the clouds rolled in that helped us, but the pitch got a little bit flatter. The ball that got Dexter did just enough, but it probably looked better from the stands. It was nice to get my name on the card because wickets haven’t come too freely for me this year so far.”

Neil Dexter, who hit 41 and bagged a couple of cheap wickets, said: “It’s hard to adapt straight away after going through a block of T20 stuff, but I thought we all did well after being given our lead by Ben Raine, who put a lot of red-ball work in prior to the game and that paid off here. The ball came out nicely for him, he bowled at good pace and got us crucial wickets.

“It’s one of those wickets where you’ve still got to look to score when you’re batting. There weren’t many bad balls and I thought Ned played Darren Stevens and Harry Podmore really well, he kept them quiet, wore them out and played a superb innings. It’s all about building small partnerships from here to try and get as big a lead as possible.

“When I first went in it was swinging quite a bit and then nibbling off the pitch and against the slope, which can make life tough here, but it got easier once the ball got softer and wasn’t swinging quite as much. We have to work in pairs tomorrow and scrap our way to as many runs as possible.”