Cricket: Seven enter final straight

CRICKET COMMENTRY
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The Independent Online
With three games to go for most teams, the Championship, wouldn't you know it, is hotting up nicely, with no fewer than seven counties still in with a realistic chance of the title. Indeed, with Kent and Glamorgan equal on points at the top, with the same number of wins, the first tie since 1977 is beginning to look a reasonable bet.

On that occasion Kent and Middlesex were the sides that could not be separated, and Middlesex are again among Kent's rivals this time. On Saturday they saw off the seventh-placed team, Worcestershire, thanks to a strong all-round bowling effort and a triple-century stand between their Test batsmen Mark Ramprakash and Jacques Kallis.

But Worcestershire themselves are not out of it yet, despite the setback at Kidderminster. Their match against Yorkshire starting tomorrow at Headingley could make or break either teams' chances, but whatever the outcome Worcestershire's hunt for a new coach in succession to Dave Houghton will be taxing the minds at New Road following Tom Moody's assertion last week that he would be unable to combine the role with captaincy next season.

The Worcestershire game represents the start of a difficult run-in for Yorkshire, who are unlikely to have Darren Gough available for any of their matches. In this latest round Yorkshire suffered, like Glamorgan and to a lesser extent Gloucestershire, from Friday night's rain.

They had been well placed for victory over Lancashire at Old Trafford, but to their understandable annoyance the venue for one of the 1999 World Cup semi-finals was unable to cope with a six-hour downfall and play was abandoned on the final day after water had seeped through the covers. Even Lancashire supporters were reportedly infuriated.

Similar goings-on at Grace Road prevented Glamorgan from taking a clear lead with victory over Leicestershire, who have had drainage problems all season. Glamorgan are considering an official complaint to Lord's, but they would be better advised to concentrate on tomorrow's visit to The Oval to face Surrey, in sixth place, bang in form and at formidable full strength.

Their latest win, by an innings and plenty against Sussex at Hove, saw Ian Salisbury take 5 for 66 on his old stamping ground, casting his former team-mates adrift at the bottom of the table. Sussex have apparently offered Shane Warne the captaincy to entice him to the South Downs next summer, but Lancashire remain favourites to sign the man whose "ball from hell" is part of Old Trafford folklore.

Third-placed Gloucestershire were undone not only by the weather but by their own batsmen's fallibility at Bristol, where they lost to this season's early pace-setters Nottinghamshire by 21 runs. They thus missed the opportunity to go top and jeopardised their chances of a first title since the Championship became officially recognised in 1890.

After their Nevil Road ground spent most of the morning drying out Gloucestershire were set a very generous target of 261 in 60 overs, but despite an opening stand of 73 between Tim Hancock and Matt Windows, their best start of the season, and a later one of 67 from Jack Russell and Mark Alleyne, they capitulated to the gentle medium pace of Nathan Astle, who took four wickets in his last Championship game of the season.

Tomorrow Gloucestershire are at Kent, who have arguably the most testing programme of all. After the Gloucestershire match they visit Headingley, and welcome Surrey to Canterbury for their final game. They too will be hoping for kinder conditions than those of the past few days, which reduced their ambition at Portsmouth to chasing maximum bonus points against Hampshire.

In the event Kent missed out on just one bowling point after Ed Smith's maiden Championship century. However, the way things are shaping up, one point might make all the difference in three weeks' time - by when we will know both the identity of the 1997 champions and, perhaps, the nature of next year's Championship.

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