Cricket: Batsmen bowling along: Scyld Berry on how Essex's drive for the championship has been underpinned by the speed with which they score their runs

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IN THE last year of the county championship as we know it, Essex are not only heading for the title but for a segment of history as well. At the rate they are going, they will become the fastest-scoring team in the hundred-odd years of the competition.

Until the 1980s the average rate of scoring in the championship, among all counties, never reached 50 runs per 100 balls or, in other terms, three runs per over. Only in the last decade has there been such a favourable combination of covered pitches, heavy bats and an emphasis on chasing targets.

If ever there was a season before 1980 when a county rivalled the current Essex team, it must have been when Middlesex won the championship in 1947, when Robertson and Brown, Compton and Edrich, had their golden summer. According to Wisden, 'By their remarkably rapid scoring the batsmen usually gave the bowlers maximum time to dismiss a side twice.' But Middlesex's rate then was no more than 59 per 100 balls, although they would have often received more overs per day and therefore made more runs.

Essex, who have been getting on with the game ever since Dickie Dodds flailed away in the fifties, scored at 61 per 100 balls last season, against 55 by the next sprightliest county, Derbyshire. In 1990, the easiest year of batting that English cricket has seen, all hot sunshine and dry pitches and seamless balls, Essex reached 63 - a scarcely credible rate to maintain through a season, given that 66 is the equivalent of four runs an over.

Yet this season, in less conducive conditions, Essex are averaging 63 again, and since run-rates almost invariably increase during a season, they should break their own record of 1990. Even when they were tumbled out at Leicester on Friday for 75, Essex still collapsed briskly. In the words of their opening batsman, John Stephenson: 'There has been some carnage this season.'

This vivacity is no accident but a design worked out by the best designed of our county clubs. On Thursday Neil Foster has another knee operation, albeit an exploratory one, and will be absent for several more weeks. For the first time in 25 years Essex are without a strike bowler to take them 80 wickets in the season, as Foster and John Lever have done.

Accordingly, they are seeking to win by using their spinners more, and by sending their opponents in first in order to chase targets. Either way they have to score quickly (spinners needing more time to take their wickets than seamers). The consequence has been some astonishing scoring, as when Essex declared after 97 overs against Lancashire on 510 for two, and won by an innings.

Stephenson, alias 'Stan' ever since he had a squiff of hair like Hardy's mate, has been as responsible as any for setting the tempo as Gooch's opening partner. He played one Test in 1989, scoring 25 and 11 against Australia, but with England 'A' last winter he was the star bowler. 'The ball swung a bit, I bowled with percentage fields and the West Indian batsmen, whose patience level is extremely low, kept having a go.'

This season at Taunton Stephenson made 272 runs in the match against Somerset, without being dismissed, off only 423 balls: that is, he faced 70.3 overs in all. Does he not feel a tension here, between throwing the bat for Essex and a natural ambition to make safe centuries and win back his England place? 'Not really: I enjoy winning matches for Essex. Besides, if I did bat for myself, Goochie would know immediately.' And the club came down like a ton of bricks on Nasser Hussain and suspended him for two matches when it sensed something of that sort.

What's it like to open with Gooch? 'The usual cliches: he scores so quickly he saps the confidence of the bowlers. When he's 50 not out and I'm on eight, it feels as if he's batting on another planet.' There is one difference though about the England captain. 'If he wasn't hitting the ball for four he used to get down on himself, but since the start of last season he has been taking quick singles and twos. He saw me running with Salim Malik in a B&H game and said 'let's have more of that'. Not much calling goes on: he just looks up and we go.'

Last year Essex were trailing Warwickshire, the championship leaders, when they came from behind to win a tremendous game at Trent Bridge by three wickets. This season, in the same way, they sensed a turning-point after their innings defeat by Yorkshire, when they were made to follow on by Hampshire at Bournemouth and won. If they do take the title - or, perhaps, even if they do not - Essex are likely to score at a rate which has never been seen before, and which, in a four-day championship, may never be seen again.

(Photograph omitted)