Cricket: Lewis' strike sets up title showdown

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The Independent Online
Leicestershire 395 Essex 95 and 201 Leics win by innings and 99 runs

LEICESTERSHIRE'S CLAIM to the title they won two seasons ago was strengthened yesterday after they completed their expected victory over Essex by an innings and 99 runs, their fifth Championship win in a row. By taking a full complement of points they now head the table going into the final round, a position that surely makes them favourites to take the pennant, despite a final match against close rivals Surrey at The Oval.

But if that is a tough assignment, they can be thankful that Essex have barely inconvenienced them over the last few days. In fact, only a last- wicket stand of 102 runs in 71 minutes between Ashley Cowan and Peter Such, an Essex record against Leicestershire, caused them to pause for thought, in an otherwise crushing win.

Coming together after Essex had lost five of their six remaining second innings in the first 40 minutes of play, the pair showed their team-mates just what could be achieved. Cowan played some of the shots of the match, as he alternated the long handle with more acceptable strokes from the coaching manual. At one stage he was on course for the fastest first-class hundred of the season, currently lying with Carl Hooper and Graham Lloyd, both of whom reached three figures from 72 balls.

With Such holding up an end, Cowan smashed Chris Lewis and David Millns to all corners of the ground. However Lewis, who had Tim Hodgson caught down the leg-side with his first ball of the morning, had some right to feel aggrieved when he had both Cowan, on 55 and Such on 11, put down in the slips.

In the end it was Millns who claimed his third wicket of the innings by finding the fast bowler's inside edge for 94, a score which, if comfortably higher than Cowan's previous best of 77, was nonetheless pyrrhic in its worth. Essex, in the words of their coach, Keith Fletcher, have been "cwap".

Lewis finished with 4 for 72, while Alan Mullally, the pick of the bowlers since picking up a yard in pace, finished with 2 for 45, a haul that included flattening Barry Hyam's middle-stump with a yorker.

The Foxes have not lost a Championship match at Grace Road since Lancashire beat them there in 1995. It is an enviable record and one that can be almost certainly attributed to teamwork backed by a potent pace attack, a combination later ackowledged by the team coach, Jack Birkenshaw.

"Apart from Alan Mullally, no-one's had a fantastic season," said Birkenshaw. "Basically the players have dove-tailed well, pulling out performances out when we've needed them. They are a confident lot and the whole thing is very satisfying."

Depending on Lancashire's result against Nottinghamshire that satisfaction could become jubilation, particularly if they only need to draw next week's match at The Oval. "We're looking forward to playing on a good pitch there," said Birkenshaw. "We know they've got two good spinners, so were not expecting a green seamer."

But, while he is undoubtedly right, Surrey cannot afford to have the pitch spin too soon as it did in the match at Northampton, for fear of getting docked 25 points. In the end that disincentive may prove more of an ally to Leicestershire's hopes of winning the title than their own bowling attack.

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