Essex have scored 397 for seven in their first innings against Worcestershire

The end of any season is usually a good excuse for a drink - and Worcestershire's under- strength bowling attack certainly needed one last night at the end of an exhausting day. But it's a fair bet that the toast was not to absent friends.

On top of the injuries suffered by Nadeem Malik (ribs) and Matt Mason (shoulder), Worcestershire were dealt a further blow for this final County Championship game of a thoroughly forgettable summer when they also lost the services of West Indian batsman Chris Gayle.

One half of Worcestershire's current collection of poor-value overseas acquisitions was a late withdrawal with a groin problem, in the hope that it clears up in time for Sunday's National League relegation showdown with Lancashire, after which the losers will be relegated.

As for the other half, it's anybody's guess whether Shoaib Akhtar will be available.

Reports as to his whereabouts yesterday were varied. Some said he was already back home in Pakistan. Others that he was still "in bed" in Worcester, suffering from what appears to be a particularly virulent strain of the flu.

Even the county's officials have no idea where he is, which is probably no bad thing. Presumably, given the heavily loaded pay-per-play nature of Shoaib's contract, at least his latest no-show is not costing them much money.

The vast majority of Worcestershire's supporters would not lose any sleep if Shoaib was never seen at New Road again.

And, when it comes to picking a team for Sunday, that understandable lack of affection for the Pakistani Test player really ought to be taken into consideration - were he to make himself available. that is.

In his absence, added to those of Mason and Malik, Worcestershire's attack did at least work hard to achieve a breakthrough on a dream batting strip and young debutant Stuart Wedge should be delighted to have ended his first day in County Championship cricket with a threewicket haul.

His first scalp was not a bad one, England Academybound Ravi Bopara caught at first slip by Ben Smith. But, had Smith held on to a much harder chance high to his right in Wedge's previous over, when Will Jefferson was dropped on 53, he might have struck even sooner.

Jefferson was dropped again on 99 by Graeme Hick, again in the slips, to the shot that actually brought him his century.

Three Essex batsmen all clearly suffered after they entered the nervous Nineties, but those two dropped catches meant Jefferson was the only one to make it to three figures before finally holing out to a great catch from Stephen Moore at backward point for


Three balls later, Wedge got that third wicket when he had James Foster also caught by Smith at slip.

But the rest of the day was dominated by the cruel fate of Essex's two near-centurions. Visiting skipper Ronnie Irani has now been within 15 runs of a century in five of his last seven innings but he was once again left with just one Championship hundred to his name this summer when he spooned a catch to short cover on 99.

The end was even more painful for young Dutchman Ryan Ten Doeschate, however. On 98 and closing in on his maiden century, the South Africa- born 25- year- old attempted to get there in style, but hooked a delivery from Kabir Ali straight at Gareth Batty.