Cricket: Essex earn title leg-up

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Sussex204 and 279

Essex405-8 dec and 80-1

Essex win by 9 wickets

THIS YEAR'S championship has virtually been resolved, in Essex's favour. Last year's winners are now 27 points clear of Kent in second place, and with a game in hand. In other terms, Essex have only to take 22 points from their next match, against Hampshire at Chelmsford starting tomorrow, to take their sixth Championship title in the last 14 seasons.

But it was a close game yesterday, though Essex eventually won by nine wickets. Only another half-hour or so of the ninth wicket stand between Martin Speight and Tony Pigott, and the championship would have been kept alive. As it was, Essex had to score no more than 79 from the last 23 overs, and the forecast rain stayed away to let them.

The abrupt termination of Sussex's innings - Speight and Pigott fell in consecutive overs - came as some relief to the Essex players, but to none more so than John Stephenson. In an over-excited moment, after catching Speight low down at cover for 103 off Graham Gooch, Stephenson jerked the ball away to his left and was not adjudged to have completed his catch.

However, the umpires did plenty of adjudging in Essex's favour in the matter of leg before decisions. Eight Sussex batsmen were given out that way in their first innings, and three more in their second. The total of leg befores in the match came to 13 in all, not far short of the record of 15 for a first-class game in England, between Oxford and Warwickshire in 1980, when Peter Wight was again officiating. The world record stands at 19, in the game between Patiala and Delhi in 1953-54, when he was not.

Wight, who gave nine of the leg before verdicts here, was quickly into his stride yesterday morning, when Derek Pringle's out-swinger to Ian Salisbury pitched on leg- stump. From the Sea End, and with a stiff wind coming from mid- off, Pringle bowled an Aldermanic spell of 9-4-10-3, varying his out- swinger with one that went between Lenham's bat and pad. Pringle throughout played with remarkable vigour for one who had to pull out of the last internationals with a 'thigh strain', to nurse it in the Essex team as they pursued their title. He even managed to surprise Alan Wells with a bouncer which lobbed to slip, although Wells was distracted after his bat had cracked. The potential captain of England 'A' would have done better to change it immediately.

As so often at Hove, batting was virtually impossible before lunch, and getting out was almost impossible after it. Essex added six more wickets in the morning session to Hall's overnight; but in the afternoon they could manage only one, after Speight and Franklyn Stephenson had added 126 from 31 overs.

Speight, a specialist at cutting, and a brilliant one, reached his fifth century of the season - though, like Chris Broad, of no fixed county, he has not made a half-century - and batted in all for almost four hours. Franklyn Stephenson then bowled his quickest, but Gooch, as ever, was at his best against West Indian fast bowling.