THE Championship pennant billowed stiffly in the breeze over the Castle Park pavilion yesterday, in direct contrast with the limp performances of Essex, its soon-to-be former owners, and Middlesex, the side about to inherit it. Here in England's oldest Roman town, these were the sort of collapses that went all the way back to the walls of Jericho.
Middlesex, currently at odds of 1-16 to relieve their hosts of the bunting this season, bowled Essex out before tea for 148, and then subsided to 167 all out in croaked reply. They will still win the Championship, but their prospects of taking the pennant directly back with them to Lord's are far from cut and dried.
Middlesex, who will win the title with three rounds to spare if they win here and Northamptonshire fail to beat Leicestershire, were plunged into disarray at 55 for 4 when England's discarded left-armer, Mark Ilott, took 3 for 1 in nine balls. They then lost their last six wickets for 34 runs at the end of a day in which 50 per cent of a match scheduled for four days is already over.
Essex's problems were caused by Angus Fraser, who exploited a grassy, seaming pitch with his customary metronomic accuracy to take 4 for 19 in 16 overs, and Norman Cowans, who took 4 for 43 in only his fourth Championship game of the summer. Essex lost their first three wickets for 23 before noon, and their last seven (after a partnership of 81 between Nasser Hussain and Salim Malik) for 44 between lunch and tea.
Yesterday the Middlesex duo ran in with the glint in the eye of men who have spotted a batting line-up with Don Topley at No 7, although Topley, in fact, batted 103 minutes for his 33. Graham Gooch, who usually makes it harder than he did yesterday for a bowling side to get down to No 7, made only 15 before edging Cowans to the wicketkeeper.
From 23 for 3, Hussain and Malik partially bandaged the wound with their fourth-wicket liason until Hussain was brilliantly caught by John Emburey at first slip in Fraser's first over after lunch. In his next over Fraser had Malik equally well caught at square cover by Ramprakash.
Mike Garnham was lbw to Cowans, before Ilott, having just hit Fraser for four, had his off stump rattled for his impertinence next ball. Winning teams also seem to have all the luck, and when Dave Boden (playing in the absence of the injured Derek Pringle) drove one fiercely back over Emburey's head, he got enough fingertip on it for the ball to float gently to Philip Tufnell at mid-on.
Middlesex hardly made the best of starts, Mike Roseberry having his off stump plucked out by Bodin's third ball. Ilott won lbw decisions against Desmond Haynes and Mark Ramprakash, for a second-ball duck, and then removed Mike Gatting, via a bottom edge into his stumps.
Carr and Brown rallied them with a stand of 78 before they both fell in consecutive overs to John Stephenson, and entertaining though it all was for a full- house crowd of 4,000, there might not be much of this game left for them by tonight.
Photograph, reports and scoreboard, page 39