Cricket: Middlesex march on Essex's pennant: Martin Johnson reports on the chase for the County Championship which gathers pace today

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The Independent Online
THERE is the distinct possibility of the earliest finish to the County Championship for years this weekend, not to mention the most convenient. Should Middlesex beat Essex in the match starting at Colchester today, it will probably be a case of removing the pennant from one flagpole and hauling it up the other.

Victory for the leaders over the holders would leave only Northamptonshire in with a mathematical chance of keeping the Championship going with three rounds still to play, and they would have to win as well, against Leicestershire, for the contest to hobble into September.

Now that the Australians are back at home, enjoying their customary post-Ashes celebrity status, and blowing kisses to the crowd at the major rugby and Rules football matches, it is hardly the ideal scenario for re-focusing interest on the remainder of the domestic programme.

If the Championship does end up as nothing more than an exercise in jockeying for place money over the last three weeks of the season, the Test and County Cricket Board's investigations into how best to improve the competitiveness of the first-class game in the aftermath of Ted Dexter's resignation may include another look at two leagues of nine teams, with promotion and relegation.

Middlesex's domination is certainly no advertisement for playing standards. Compared to the Middlesex sides who won the title four times between 1980 and 1990, they are no more than ordinary, this year's race has been the equivalent of a grand prix being fought out between a Fiesta and a Metro.

Essex would normally be regarded as redoutable opponents for Middlesex, but with Neil Foster having retired, and the suspicion that their fabled ability to recover lost causes has something to do with a dressing-room that is not quite as much fun to be in as it once was, Middlesex will be approaching this game with something less than trepidation.

Northamptonshire are one of four counties (along with Sussex, Somerset and Durham) never to have won the Championship, a situation which is likely to stay the same for at least another season. Their immediate task is to beat Leicestershire, who do not have a reputation as the most obliging of neighbours.

When Northamptonshire last finished second in 1976, Leicestershire's captain, Ray Illingworth, declared and followed on in a rain-affected draw at Grace Road rather than concede bonus points to their Championship-chasing visitors. If they are more friendly these days, it is not by much.

Glamorgan currently lie second, and begin their run-in at Abergavenny today against Gloucestershire, the only side standing between Durham's retention of the Championship's invisible prize, the wooden spoon.

However, Glamorgan have a possible maximum of 259 points compared to Northamptonshire's 277, and having been strongly in the running for three competitions a fortnight ago, they now have all their eggs in the Sunday League basket.

----------------------------------------------------------------- COUNTY RUN-IN ----------------------------------------------------------------- THE TOP FOUR P Pts Max pts Middlesex. . . . . 14 245 317 Glamorgan. . . . . 14 187 259 Surrey. . . . . . .14 183 255 Northants. . . . . 13 181 277 REMAINING FIXTURES Middlesex: Essex (a), Lancs (h), Worcs (a). Glamorgan: Gloucs (h), Essex (h), Kent (a). Surrey: Somerset (h), Hants (h), Yorks (h). Northants: Leics (h), Derby (a), Lancs (a). -----------------------------------------------------------------