Cricket: Stephenson shines: Derek Hodgson reports from Derby

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The Independent Online
Derbyshire 226 and 309; Essex 96 and 283-5

JOHN STEPHENSON spent all six hours yesterday reminding a crowd huddled in their anoraks that Essex are the champions - again. Starting on Tuesday evening, he batted until soon after tea, reducing the target of 440 by 97 runs, an innings to be valued not by the marks in the scorebook but by the balls bowled, each one shutting the door to Derbyshire.

All this on a day that was not quite the last of the summer wine, more the first of the winter soup, served piping hot at five o'clock to shivering, be-sweatered fielders. The sky was never more than light grey, the wind remained keen and the pitch, after promising the bowlers, resumed a stubborn placidity.

Essex began needing 396, two days to bat, all wickets in hand. In Ian Bishop's second over Nick Knight was leg before, before Jon Lewis was bowled by a nasty delivery from Allan Warner that bit past his ankles. Thereafter the threat lessened.

Bishop has both a strained tendon and a sore shin and had only four overs in his opening spell with a further six later. Paul Prichard held on with Stephenson for another 13 overs until he became a victim of a spiky pre-lunch spell by Dominic Cork, the preface to the key resistance of the day, a stand of 88 in 34 overs between Nadeem Shahid and Stephenson. When 89, Stephenson snicked Warner wide of Karl Krikken, but Essex were nearly half-way to their target when Shahid failed to avoid a ball from Cork.

After 94 overs Derbyshire offered their first spin, two overs from Kim Barnett that bothered Stephenson. Devon Malcolm took the new ball and was in his third over when he produced one of those deliveries that sends Micky Stewart glassy-eyed: very fast, just outside the off-stump, rocking back. Stephenson, three runs from one of the most deserved centuries of the season, had his off stump sent cartwheeling.

In the theatre there would have been a standing ovation; in this crowd those who had not died of hypothermia managed a round of applause. By then Graham Gooch had arrived, paraphrasing Jim Callaghan: 'Crisis? What crisis?' He and the quick-footed Mike Garnham peered on through a darker grey twilight. Snow warnings may follow.