Championship is only Leicestershire's to lose

Derek Pringle believes only foul weather can stop Whitaker's men in the final game
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The Independent Online
The final round of cricket's County Championship is upon us, and although Leicestershire are clear favourites, two other outcomes are still possible, with Kent and Surrey both well placed to triumph should either weather or nerves intervene. As none of the top three are used to winning competitions, they will be as apprehensive as newly hatched butterflies and there could still be an unexpected twist to the summer's final showdown.

Leicestershire, who play Middlesex at Grace Road, need 11 points to clinch the title they won for the first and only time in 1975. A draw with a full complement of bonus points would be enough, although their inspirational captain, James Whitaker, claims they intend to win, and in fine style too.

In a game beset by increasingly obtuse statistics, one of the more telling ones is that Leicestershire have used just 13 players this season. With Alan Mullally missing half the county games on England duty and Whitaker out for three weeks with a torn calf muscle, it is an amazing record. One that possibly explains the claim of the coach, Jack Birkenshaw, that: "They are a team on and off the field".

It is one of the few unexplained phenomena of cricket, how forgotten sides from the middle of the table suddenly take on renewed stature at this time of year, and pristine team ethic or not, Leicestershire will still have to play well over the next few days if they are to beat Middlesex, who are awkward opponents for this crucial final encounter.

The Londoners, who have had a roller-coaster season of wins and losses, could prove dangerous should conditions suit. Unless an early strike proves decisive, Middlesex's embattled quartet of Gatting, Fraser, Ramprakash and Tufnell would all enjoy one last round of "Ho, Ho, Ho," before Christmas.

As straightforward and oppressive as the mathematics of the points system will appear to those chasing the leaders, there will be less pressure on Surrey and Kent, who need to win against Worcestershire and Gloucestershire respectively to have any chance of lifting the trophy.

Of the two, Surrey, already boosted by winning the Sunday League trophy, probably have the easier game. Unlike Kent, who travel to Nevil Road, they have the advantage of The Oval pitch. Unless Graeme Hick plans to spend the winter hibernating with another hundred under his belt, Worcestershire will not be as fearsome as their neighbours down the M5 at Bristol.

For one thing, Courtney Walsh, Gloucestershire's captain, will want to end as the season's highest wicket-taker. With 77 already, and only Peter Such ahead of him with 80, Kent's batsmen are guaranteed a rough ride, particularly if the pitch is sporting its usual green tinge.

Normally that would suit Kent, whose new-ball attack of Martin McCague and Dean Headley has recently been hat-trick happy. However, with bonus points now more precious than personal statistics, both Kent and Surrey will want to take the maximum on offer which means scoring 350-plus inside 120 overs.

If reports are accurate though, the weather, normally so reliable at this time of year, could play the most decisive role of all. Apparently, over the next few days, a low-pressure system from France is expected to bring bands of rain up from the South-east, placing both Surrey's and Leicestershire's matches at risk. If so, those playing in the West, as Kent are, may prosper should rain unfittingly decide to have the last say.

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