Champions singing in the reign

Warwickshire 468-6 dec Kent 239 and 124 Warwicks won by inn & 105 runs; Middlesex go down fighting but Warwickshire's victory by an innings seals County Championship encore
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The Independent Online
AT LAST the waiting has stopped for Warwickshire. At 11.08am yesterday they were assured of a share in the Championship, after heavy overnight rain had delayed the start at Canterbury, and Middlesex, their closest rivals, had failed to take maximum bowling points against Somerset. At 5.05pm however, the pennant was theirs outright for the second successive year. Last week's delayed champagne corks were eventually pulled and the braying Warwickshire faithful were sprayed from the players' balcony as Dermot Reeve received the winners' cheque from the chairman of Britannic Assurance for pounds 55,000.

For a side used to playing dynamic cricket, Warwickshire have shown remarkable patience this past week, and when play got under way at 2.30pm, they showed little edginess. Kent, resuming at 18 without loss, were essentially two men down before a ball was bowled, with Alan Igglesden nursing a fractured thumb and Graham Cowdrey a bruised finger. Inevitably all eyes were on Allan Donald for a quick finish.

However, typical of a side forever confounding its critics with improbable sleights of hand, the immediate surprise lay elsewhere as Ashley Giles, a former left-arm seam bowler turned spinner from Surrey, struck from the other end with a spell of three wickets in eight balls.

Mark Benson was the first to depart, caught behind by Keith Piper. In his next over Giles had the right-hander Trevor Ward caught behind before bowling a strokeless Nigel Llong.

With their thoughts understandably on a lengthening injury list for today's Sunday League fixture, Kent did not appear to have the stomach for the fight. Matthew Walker was a case in point, his waft at Donald resulting in another catch for Piper. Durham's win over Nottinghamshire now means Kent can look forward to taking their winter medicine from the wooden spoon they have avoided since 1895, the year Warwickshire first entered the Championship.

Only Mark Ealham rallied Kent before chipping a return catch to Mick Bell and when Steve Marsh was brilliantly caught off an inside edge by Piper off Donald, Kent were 113 for six and the end was nigh.

With his tail up Donald was not to be denied further victims, and he quickly mopped up Martin McCague and Min Patel, the former again caught behind by Piper to give the Warwickshire keeper his fifth victim of the innings. It was Donald's 89th wicket in the Championship, his best ever haul for Warwickshire, beating his previous best of 86 set in 1989.

In retaining the Championship for the second time in as many years Warwickshire have had to win at least three more games than they did last year. Victory here was their 14th of the season and it means they will have just over 80 per cent of their matches, the highest win ratio by any county since the war.

It is an incredible record given the volte-face in tactics and team composition involved in replacing a world-class batsman (Brian Lara) with his bowling equivalent (Allan Donald). Following Lara's season would have been difficult enough even for Lara himself to emulate, yet Donald has managed it, motivated by his respect for a club that has probably seen the last of him with his warpaint on.

Donald has been the thrusting force behind Warwickshire's mission of disproving last year's criticism of them being a "flash-in-the-pan side" elevated to greatness by a phenomenal left-handed batsman. Reeve paid tribute when he said. "Away from home we've played on plenty of anti-Donald tracks, but he's so quick through the air. I can't speak too highly of the man's commitment."

For Donald it was a day to treasure. "I wasn't involved last year but now I know what it feels like," he said. "It means a lot to me. I was very emotional when I came off the field. Lots of nice things were said which made it even more difficult. The tears were coming out. It is one of the best moments of my career."

Donald's pre-eminence has not been the only change, with Nick Knight arriving from Essex to open and Phil Neale replacing the outgoing coach Bob Woolmer, another important figure in the county's emergence as a potent force. But flux and change are what Warwickshire are all about for they shun formulas, however successful, preferring to explore the less safe habitats of technique and self.

Under the energetic and inventive Reeve, everyone is expected and encouraged to bat or bowl out of position. That way nobody gets in the habit of relying on the best players and every player is given a taste of responsibility, without fear or recrimination should things go wrong. Intentional or not, this has fostered a great team spirit and a formidable side, who have again proved worthy champions.

Warwickshire's winning ways

BRITANNIC ASSURANCE COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP

Opponents Result Pos

APRIL

27 Middlesex W

MAY

4 Surrey W 2nd

11 Lancashire L 3rd

18 Durham W 2nd

25 Somerset W 2nd

JUNE

8 Sussex D 2nd

22 Yorkshire W 2nd

29 Essex W 2nd

JULY

6 Leicestershire W 2nd

20 Glamorgan W 1st

27 Northamptonshire L 1st

AUGUST

10 Hampshire W 3rd

17 Nottinghamshire W 2nd

24 Worcestershire W 2nd

29 Gloucestershire W 1st

SEPTEMBER

7 Derbyshire W 1st

14 Kent W 1st

NATWEST TROPHY FINAL

2-3 September (Lord's)

Northamptonshire 200

Warwickshire 203-6

Warwickshire won by 4 wkts.

TOP OF THE TABLE

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

Warwicks (1) 17 14 2 1 49 64 337

Middlesex (4) 16 12 2 2 47 59 298

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