Cricket: Simmons' men in pole position for pennant

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The Independent Online
FOUR DAYS, three teams and a Championship. If the phrase sounds like the title of a blockbusting film the glamour will be strictly localised as cricket's equivalent of the Premiership is concluded in front of less than full houses at The Oval and Old Trafford.

Three teams - Leicestershire, Surrey and Lancashire - head the running for the Championship pennant, still the most highly regarded domestic competition. But if the kudos remains, the prize money - pounds 100,000 to be shared among the winning team - is piffling, amounting as it does to about a month's salary for a footballer plying his trade with one of Britain's leading clubs.

Of the trio fighting for the spoils, only Leicestershire, who lead Surrey and Lancashire by nine and 11 points respectively, can conceivably win by drawing - their match is against second-placed Surrey.

To prevail that way would rely on Lancashire winning with fewer than full bonus points against Hampshire. As this is the easier of the two matches, on paper if not meteorologically, Phil Simmons' men would probably be advised to win first and leave the contingencies to those below them.

Bonus points apart, the other imponderable is the early autumn weather. Domestic cricket desperately needs exciting grand finales like this and it would be a pity if the whole thing were to be rendered disappointingly predictable by persistent downpour. So far the forecast is for rain on Friday.

Leicestershire, the only side in the top three playing away, will, nevertheless, be favourites to secure the trophy they won two years ago. With five victories in a row, their momentum is as impressive as their pace bowling which, providing an extra spinner is not required, knows it has one more important assignment to complete.

Alan Mullally, Chris Lewis and James Ormond versus Mark Butcher, Alec Stewart and possibly Graham Thorpe is about as good a contest between bat and ball as it gets in England outside a Test. Forget cricket's antediluvian reputation as the gentleman's game, the next few days under the gasometer promises to be a begrudging and ill-tempered contest.

Surrey, who last won the Championship in 1971 when Alec Stewart's father, Mickey, was captain, will be without their leading bowler, the Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. With The Oval one of the few places to help spinners this summer, Saqlain's departure to the superfluous Sahara Cup in Toronto is a callous slight on his team-mates and further blights the merits of counties hiring expensive overseas players.

As Surrey's chief match-winner with 63 wickets, Saqlain will be badly missed. Instead of having a world-class spinner to control the game with, Adam Hollioake will be forced to turn exclusively to the leg-spinner Ian Salisbury, a plan England also followed this summer for no reward.

Lancashire have no such problems with their overseas player, Wasim Akram, who finding himself in the middle of renewed accusations of match-fixing has put his international career on hold in an effort to clear his name.

Wasim may not be at Old Trafford next year, but he seems determined to give the Red Rose supporters something to remember him by and having captained them to two trophies this season, a third would surely result in near deification. Now that Rupert Murdoch appears to have caused heresy among the followers of Manchester's red religion, idols need only to have spice rather than a Spice Girl to be worshiped.

The pressure of expectation, long overdue in the case of both Surrey and Lancashire, is not to be trifled with. For instance, Lancashire have not won the Championship outright since 1934, though they did share it with Surrey in 1950, a result not possible now that wins and losses are taken into account should the points be level.

Michael Atherton, missing for the last two matches with a bad back, is expected to be fit to renew his battles with Hampshire's West Indian fast bowler, Nixon McLean. Lancashire managed to come second in Atherton's first year at the club in 1987 and it remains a burning ambition of his, despite absenteeism, to win the Championship.

John Crawley, next year's captain, will also be fired up, and barring disaster and some prolific scoring from Steve James or Carl Hooper, will finish with the season's highest aggregate of first-class runs. Whether he has a Championship medal to go with it really depends on Surrey and Leicestershire fighting each other to a standstill.

CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS

TOP OF THE TABLE

P W L D Pts

Leics 16 10 0 6 268

Surrey 16 10 4 2 259

Lancs 16 10 1 5 257

Remaining fixtures (starting today): The Oval: Surrey v Leicestershire. Old Trafford: Lancashire v Hampshire.

POINTS AVAILABLE

Sixteen for a victory (three for a draw) plus a maximum of eight bonus points in the first 120 overs of the first innings (four for batting, four for bowling). Bonus points are awarded for reaching 200 (one), 250 (two), 300 (three) and 350 (four) and for taking 3-4 wickets (one), 5- 6 (two), 7-8 (three) and 9-10 (four).

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