Cricket: County Championship - Now it's war for middle classes

Surrey's romp leaves rest scrapping for survival; Stephen Brenkley finds fear of the fall means a rare fight to the death
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The Independent Online
IT IS one of life's acceptable assumptions that the nation's cricketing authorities are invariably wrong. This is also the case when they are right, perhaps particularly when they are right, since it is not useful to permit any laurel resting. But the case for establishing two divisions of the County Championship from this season on is unarguable. The timing of the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision was, it is almost painful to concede, impeccable.

This has nothing to do with the need to take the grand old league into a new era based on an elite top tier and hard-nosed competitiveness all through. That is eminently debatable. No, the decision was correct because without it the final stages of the final season of the millennium would have been played out before a silence bleakly deafening even by the standards of a tournament long since unaccustomed to being accompanied by the roar of the crowd. Cricket for cricket's sake would not have been enough to save it.

Surrey have won the title by a street, in length more Watling than Carnaby. They are already 61 points ahead of the second placed side, Leicestershire, which is one more than the maximum to be gained from three games. They have left nothing to play for. Except, of course, the Great Divide. Surrey's huge lead has helped to create a crushed concertina effect below them. And what a contest is taking place. Every bonus point is a diamond, every win a mine full of them.

The culmination of the match in Birmingham yesterday was gripping. It typified what the prospect of playing in the second division is doing to sides, at once galvanising them and petrifying them. Warwickshire, chasing a paltry 172 to beat Gloucestershire and move from 12th position - which would put them in the first division - to eighth - which would mean the second division - won by one wicket. It was dramatic fare as 155 for 5 became 166 for 9. This was the petrification.

Singles were nudged hither and thither, mostly with a dither, before the final act exhibited the galvanising. Ashley Giles, who has shown before that he is a cricketer for the demanding occasion, smartly thrust a leg down the track, and swept a six over midwicket. Warwickshire still face a tough struggle to be sure of elite status. Their two remaining matches are against Durham and Sussex, both of them in the cluster of teams anxious to finish ninth but not 10th.

In strictly mathematical terms a dozen counties are still fighting to escape the ignominy of forming the first second division in English first- class cricket, though realistically the dogfight is between six of them, now separated by a mere 11 points. That Warwickshire should be one of them would not have seemed possible in the first part of the decade. They might have been the Bears but they were also cocks of the walk. From 1993 to 1997 they won seven trophies, all four available at least once and the Championship twice.

The game is not as easy as they made it look then. Their performance yesterday was but a pale memory of those times. The pitch was a slow, uneven turner but it yielded only one innings of conviction. Warwickshire began the day as slight favourites, partly because they had nine wickets intact, partly because Gloucestershire are bottom in the table. They lost two wickets quickly to Ian Harvey, who had David Hemp caught behind and Trevor Penny leg before to one which hit him on the full on the toe.

Patience, it was felt, would bring its reward for Warwickshire, though Gloucestershire would not let them settle. Jack Russell produced another vintage display of wicketkeeping, all flinches and jerks except when it mattered. He stood up to the medium fast Mike Smith and took him, high or low, as nonchalantly as popping a chocolate into his mouth.

Michael Powell, the opener who has been in form, played with some composure before tamely giving a return catch to Mark Alleyne, neither attacking nor defending and shortly after Dougie Brown dabbed at one from the same bowler.

David Graveney, the chairman of the England selectors, was on the dressing- room balcony and he might well have been there to tell the Gloucestershire captain that he will also be England A captain shortly. Alleyne thoroughly deserves it.

He had put his side back in touch and as the target hove into view Warwickshire tottered some more. Tony Frost was bowled by one from Smith which kept low after a vigilant effort, Neil Smith was leg before to Martyn Ball's off-spin. Through all this, Dominic Ostler had steadily amassed 76 by taking on the bad ball and eschewing almost everything else. Ostler, who was first denied but was then awarded a benefit next season, had faced 177 balls when he was leg before to Smith. Immediately afterwards Tim Munton guided one to slip. But Giles finished it with the cleanest hit of the day.

Surrey may not be popular champions, but their right to the title is indisputable. They have played hard cricket.

Gloucestershire, meanwhile, have become the first county to be consigned to division two. Their defeat means they cannot gain enough points in their last two games. They will probably finish bottom. Yet they have won two one-day trophies this season and would undoubtedly declare it a success. Hail and farewell to the wonderful world of English cricket.