MIDDLESEX were confirmed as champions yesterday after Ben Smith, 21, born in Northamptonshire, defied his native county for more than four hours to ensure that Leicestershire escaped with an honourable draw.
Well as Smith, a former England under-19 batsman, played, Northamptonshire will have to rethink their strategy. They still need another experienced specialist spinner, essential for four-day cricket, while the pitch they cut for this match always favoured the batsmen when they needed, for a result, a surface that gave the bowler a better-than-even chance.
Leicestershire began badly. Three wickets down and still 24 behind, the stubborn Peter Hepworth managed only another three runs before he misjudged Paul Taylor's length and had his leg stump flattened. Leicestershire were just 19 ahead when Phil Robinson tried to clear the infield and was caught at mid-on. That, in effect, left only Smith and the tail.
Having introduced spin just before lunch, Lamb continued with it on a wearing pitch. Unfortunately, there was rarely quite enough turn, or bounce, to remove a batsman set on defending his stumps. There was one chance: Smith, on 31, popped up Bailey to short leg but the catch was dropped. Fortified, Smith and Paul Nixon eventually aspired to do more than stay and took an unnecessary risk, Mark Bowen's long throw running out Nixon as he went for a third.
By then Smith had gained confidence and Gordon Parsons proved to be another admirable lieutenant. Even when Lamb took the new ball, runs accrued and minutes ticked away. Parsons stayed 89 minutes and was replaced by the equally obdurate Adrian Pierson while Smith bristled, lifting Bailey for six and cracking Curran twice to the boards. His 84 took 78 overs and when he was eighth out, on the stroke of the last 20 overs, Leicestershire were 167 ahead.
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