Cricket / County Championship: Essex cruise to pennant with plenty to spare: Gooch leads the praise for his younger players after his team claim their sixth title in the last 14 seasons: Barrie Fairall reports from Chelmsford

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Essex 298 and 165-2; Hampshire 233 and 229. Essex win by eight wickets

IT MAY not have been a vintage year, but at 3.35pm yesterday the champagne went down a treat here, and a good deal of it over spectators in grand-prix fashion, as Essex celebrated back-to-back Championships. This one, though, was hardly backs-to-the-wall stuff, the destiny of the title decided with two rounds of matches to go.

The only question mark at a windswept County Ground was whether incoming weather would beat Essex before they had time to beat Hampshire and that was answered by a true man of Essex in the shape of the Stebbing-born John Stephenson, who had the honour of putting away the winning single after an anxious glance or two at the heavens had persuaded him to open the throttle.

Finishing on 83, he was not short of a co-driver, either, as Paul Prichard chipped in with a half-century. Chasing 165 and coming together at two down for 32, the pair knocked off the necessary 133 in 31 overs. Hampshire, who needed all the help they could get, can only assume that the sun shines on Essex because an hour and a quarter following the end of proceedings it poured.

That is the way it goes, but in truth Essex always had the evil eye on Hampshire along the way to their sixth Championship success in 14 seasons. The pounds 46,000 in readies, you felt, were always going to line Essex's pockets after a heady day in late June at Bournemouth. Hampshire were then sitting at the top of the table, but they were in for a very rude shock.

On the 23rd of the month, Essex, following on with arrears of 151, staged a dramatic recovery by rolling Hampshire over for 80 to win by 79 runs. Furthermore, they were out in front for good on the 27th after cleaning out Lancashire by an innings at Ilford. All Hampshire, who had now won just once in their last 11 outings and slipped to 11th in the table, could do here was perhaps delay the inevitable.

That would have given Kent, in second place and sitting out this round of four-dayers, some faint hope. But then, having whistled out Hampshire for 70 earlier this month for a nine-wicket victory at Canterbury, they should not have expected too much. At least Hampshire now made a reasonable fight of it here in front of a crowd upwards of 3,000 who had turned up to cheer on their heroes.

When Hampshire were 63 for 6 in mid-afternoon on Wednesday, mind, and still trailed Essex it looked as if day four was a no-no. Come the close, however, and Adrian Aymes was battling away in residence, with Ian Turner in the blocker's role at the other end. These two continued the good work, too, when they resumed, Aymes arriving at his 50 off 150 balls and Turner eventually getting off the mark after facing 48 deliveries.

The partnership had stretched to 87 minutes and was worth 45 when Turner was caught behind driving at Mark Ilott and the innings closed as Aymes lifted Derek Pringle to deep mid-on. The wicketkeeper had made 65 in a shade under four hours and he was furious with himself. He had no need to be because he had shown his colleagues how to make a scrap of it.

With a minimum of 81 overs, barring what was blowing in from the West, to get their runs, the rest always looked a doddle for Essex. Turner, though, was not quite ready to give up after his five for 81 return in the first innings and the slow left-armer had the satisfaction of removing Graham Gooch when the captain offered up a bat-pad catch to short leg and Jonathan Lewis when the No 3 shouldered arms and was bowled.

As for the last word, once Stephenson and Prichard had emerged unbeaten from their century stand, Gooch said: 'Our youngsters have done us proud. This was a more memorable victory than last year considering all the injuries.' Essex, in fact, had never once fielded a full-strength side. 'It's been a hard slog,' Gooch said. Hard on opponents, too.


11 May: drew with Leicestershire (Chelmsford)

17 May: beat Kent by an innings and 86 runs Chelmsford)

22 May: lost to Somerst by four wickets Taunton)

4 June: drew with Glamorgan (Chelmsford)

8 June: lost to Kent by four wickets (Tun bridge Wells)

15 June: beat Durham by 190 runs (Hartle pool)

18 June: beat Yorkshire by an innings and 55 runs (Headingley)

22 June: beat Hampshire by 79 runs (Bourne mouth)

28 June: beat Lancashire by an innings and 32 runs (Ilford)

2 July: beat Middlesex by eight wickets (Il ford)

6 July: drew with Warwickshire (Edgbaston)

16 July: beat Gloucestershire by four wickets (Southend)

20 July: beat Sussex by eight wickets (South end)

23 July: drew with Worcestershire (Kidder minster)

27 July: lost to Leicestershire by 68 runs (Leicester)

6 August: lost to Northamptonshire by an in nings and 13 runs (Chelmsford)

17 August: beat Nottinghamshire by an in nings and 37 runs (Colchester)

20 August: drew with Surrey (Colchester)

30 August: beat Sussex by nine wickets (Hove)

3 September: beat Hampshire by eight wickets (Chelmsford)

(Photograph omitted)