Cricket: Middlesex become champions with time to spare: Mike Gatting's side take title with three rounds of matches remaining after Northamptonshire are frustrated by Leicestershire at the County Ground

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The Independent Online
MIDDLESEX were required to do nothing more strenuous with their bank holiday Monday than lounge around at home when the 1993 Britannic Assurance County Championship plopped into their lap yesterday, and if any of their players had something appropriate tucked away inside the fridge, they would have raised the first glass to Leicestershire.

Mike Gatting's side, unemployed after knocking off last year's champions, Essex, in two days at Colchester on Friday, could only have been caught by Northamptonshire, but the Cobblers' failure to beat Leicestershire at the County Ground yesterday left Middlesex unassailable with three rounds of matches still to be played.

It was an anticlimax for the sponsors, who, when Middlesex last won the title, in 1990, commemorated the occasion by handing over a cheque even wider than Gatting. When he receives this year's cheque, one of English cricket's more generously proportioned figures will be happily perusing another - pounds 47,500. The Championship might be the least glamorous of the four major domestic prizes, but it is the richest.

Middlesex's 12th title, which has been more or less cut and dried for several weeks, means that the Championship pennant has only adorned four flagpoles in the last 15 years. Essex have won it six times, Middlesex five, and Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire twice each.

Gatting, an uncomplicated and unpretentious character who would have probably celebrated with a beer rather than champagne ('can't drink that stuff - a couple of glasses and I'm legless') has now led Middlesex to the Championship three times since 1985, and is unimpressed by suggestions that this year's contest has been not so much a high-quality dogfight as a chorus of yapping between poodles.

'We have played some bloody good cricket this summer, and what we are seeing is four-day cricket leaving the weaker teams with nowhere to hide. Our side is not much different to the one that won in 1990, and no one said we were not worth the title that year. Everyone has contributed and it's been a good all-round team effort.'

Middlesex, who have only to avoid defeat in their last two games to become only the fourth side since the war to go through a season unbeaten, are not playing in the round of matches starting today, and will probably not be presented with the pennant until a week on Thursday, when they play Lancashire at Lord's.

If so, the official ceremony might stir up a few more rumbles of discontent at Old Trafford. Sponsored cars? The driving test had only just been introduced when Lancashire last won the title, in 1934, so powerful resources do not guarantee success.

Middlesex, in fact, will point to the efforts of their more homespun players, the likes of John Carr, who briefly gave up the game for a career in banking, and Keith Brown, whose batting is no less admirable for the fact that it does not create queues at the turnstiles. At least not to get in.

Under Gatting, Middlesex have always had a hard-nosed, professional edge, and are suited to four-day cricket. There are fewer innings for batsmen, which encourages them to place a higher value on their wicket, and there is also more time for practising, rather than lobbing the kit in the car boot and heading off into another contraflow for another match. Middlesex have won 11 of their 15 matches, five of them inside three days, and if Angus Fraser remains fit, they will not be easily dethroned next summer.

Their two key bowlers this year have been John Emburey and Philip Tufnell. At 41, Emburey is playing as though he has been on the Cliff Richard tablets. Apart from taking wickets, his batting (which he is really rather proud of, despite being able to smile at its eccentricities) has been no less important to the cause.

Emburey may not, however, squeeze into the winter tour party. And as Gatting, who has a poor record against the West Indies, is not much more than an outsider for a batting place, his smile may not be as wide as it is this morning when the squad is announced on 15 September.

Cricket, page 34

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