Cricket: Essex prepared to make hay

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Rob Bailey, Northamptonshire's acting captain, who summarised this week what most county cricketers are thinking: 'Come August, the sun always shines on Essex.'

It seems unlikely that even the combined powers of Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch are capable of making El Sol behave to order; what he really meant was that when the Championship is in sight, Essex make things happen.

Can anyone stop them retaining the pennant? The bookmakers' answer would certainly be 'No'. With four matches to play they lead Kent by 24 points which means, in effect, that Mark Benson's team would have to win two of their last three matches while Essex stood still.

The other two counties who have reached 200 points, with the last four rounds of four-day Championship matches to start today, are Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. On paper they seem doomed not only to meet in the NatWest final at Lord's on 5 September but also to kill off each other in the Championship race; they each play their last match at Grace Road.

The one factor that could upset all these calculations is the weather. This has been an old-fashioned English summer of unsettled weather with one variation: the South and East have been hit by heavy rain as often as the North and West. Essex would argue that if that pattern continues they are still well-placed: they have only one remaining match at home, against Hampshire at Chelmsford.

Gloucestershire, ninth, will be the team to pick up most outside support in the run-in because their performances could have a profound effect on the race. They play Essex and Leicestershire at Bristol and Kent at Canterbury; and, as their mid-table position suggests, they are a resilient team who are not easily dismissed.

Most cheering of all about this possibly exciting conclusion is that counties, injuries apart, will be able to field full strength sides. This means that Gooch, Lamb, Gower, Smith, Pringle and Russell will all be wearing their county badges and that each match will be a true trial of strength over a period of days during which it should not be necessary to agree upon contrived declarations. May the best team win.

County Championship Leaders

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

Essex (1) 18 8 5 5 54 50 232

Kent (6) 19 7 2 10 53 43 208

Leicestershire (16) 20 7 6 7 36 54 202

Northants (10) 19 6 4 9 54 50 200

(1991 positions in brackets)

LEADERS' REMAINING FIXTURES: 26 August: Kent v Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire v Middlesex, Sussex v Essex. 31: Essex v Hampshire, Yorkshire v Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire v Leicestershire. 7 September: Derbyshire v Essex, Kent v Glamorgan. 11: Gloucestershire v Essex, Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Warwickshire v Kent.