Cricket: Dismal Essex hit rock bottom

Leicestershire 395 Essex 95 and 58-4
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THERE IS only one team playing cricket in this match and that is Leicestershire. As Championship leaders they have so far steamrollered Essex, flattening them into a state well beyond submission, as the visitors headed for their fifth defeat in as many games; a wretched state for a county who have won this competition six times since 1979.

For Surrey, second placed and eyeing proceedings from a watery North- east, the feeling was probably one of helpless exasperation. Chasing points is bad enough when you are confined to the dressing-room, but when your rivals' opponents are barely troubling the scorers, the feeling is amplified manyfold.

Having bowled without distinction, despite putting their opponents in, Essex batted like men for whom the end of the season couldn't come quickly enough. Needing 246 to avoid the follow-on, after Vince Wells' 171 had helped the home side reach 395, Essex capitulated to 95 all out, with David Millns taking 3 for 8 in seven overs.

Indeed, only four batsmen reached double figures in the first innings, as the last six wickets fell in 10 overs for 19 runs. When Essex followed on, wickets again tumbled regularly and they finished at 58 for 4, some 242 runs from making Leicestershire bat again. On this evidence, bottom of the table is not low enough. And the escape route that may be offered, should Northamptonshire be docked 25 points for a sub-standard pitch, would be ill-deserved.

Blame for this appalling state of affairs is difficult to pinpoint because Essex have had a decent one-day season, winning the Benson and Hedges and running Lancashire close in the AXA League. However, their Championship form has been dire and only Tim Hodgson and Paul Grayson showed the necessary application on a pitch whose capricious nature was well exploited by Leicestershire's useful quartet of pace bowlers, headed by Alan Mullally.

It is standard, when such ignominy prevails, to blame the captain and the coach. Yet Paul Prichard and Keith Fletcher are both experienced operators, whose appointment of Eddie Hemmings and Geoff Arnold, as spin and fast bowling coaches, has echoed the shape of the England set-up under David Lloyd. Yet if the players want for nothing technically, their attitude, particularly among the batsmen - who have accumulated 14 batting points all season - has left much to be desired.

Fletcher must clearly take some blame. A shrewd analyst, his lack of absolute power - Essex have always believed that the captain is the only chief - has perhaps undermined his strengths, which are perhaps not always to everyone's liking.

Prichard, too, has not excelled either. A top first-class score of 24 is abysmal for a man of his talents. Yesterday provided no respite and he came and went twice in the day, an embarrassing fate that also befell Stuart Law, Stephen Peters and Ronnie Irani.

In fact, bar Hodgson, few resisted for long, as a mixture of careless strokes and magnificent catches laid waste to the batting. Phil Simmons, whose diving catch at slip helped remove Irani in the first innings, was superb and he later caught the same batsman off Carl Crowe, diving forward at mid-wicket.

Essex used to do much the same to other sides. Like most dynasties, even the most durable fall, though none as spectacularly as Essex this season. Unless the weather intervenes, Leicestershire, 10 points ahead of Surrey, will gain another 16. With both sides due to meet in a week, only a win by Lancashire against Nottinghamshire can prevent it from being the ultimate decider.

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