THE seemingly inexorable Essex decline continues apace. This numbing defeat yesterday at the hands of one of their more unassuming rivals, on one of the out-grounds that proved so fertile during the years of dominance, effectively leaves the champions with nothing to play for bar pride over the last two months of the season.
Leicestershire, in contrast, have now won three games in a row, a somewhat surprising development given a spindly batting order and the persistent absence of their spearhead, David Millns. Spin held the key here, though, and on a receptive pitch Adrian Pierson maintained his renaissance with another five-wicket haul, yet it was the similarly revitalised pace of Winston Benjamin that dealt the critical blows.
Benjamin had bowled Graham Gooch on Saturday evening as Essex set off in pursuit of 288. Rain reduced the morning's ration by 24 overs, and another 246 were required off a minimum of 78 overs when Paul Prichard and Peter Such reconvened, but the nightwatchman failed to survive Benjamin's first ball, falling leg-before.
Prichard and Salim Malik prospered briefly but the Pakistani, having been struck in the chest sweeping at Pierson, who was exploiting the rough outside off-stump, essayed an identical shot at the next delivery and also departed leg-before. Nasser Hussain drove imperiously for a few overs before being bowled by a brute of a ball from Benjamin that pitched on middle and pegged back off-stump.
Unflustered, Prichard carried on gliding the bowling around, reaching a deserved half-century and promptly being dropped at deep midwicket as he swept at Pierson. The miss proved none too costly, however, although, judging by this mild-mannered player's reaction, Gordon Parsons may have been a mite fortunate to elicit an lbw verdict. Parsons had squeezed through Mike Garnham's prod four overs earlier and Pierson now dispatched Mark Ilott and Steve Andrew without undue difficulty, both caught off bat and pad for ducks.
The final act at least contained a degree of intrigue. Derek Pringle opened his shoulders, and found a dogged accomplice in John Childs, the final pair delaying the tea interval and staying put for nearly an hour.
Essex's visions of the first Championship hat-trick since 1968 all but disappeared when Pierson switched ends and penetrated Childs' defence.
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