Cricket: Top four set to hog limelight in title finale

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The Independent Online
After the most open of Championship races, a leading group of four teams have finally broken away from the peleton with just two games to go, all of them enjoying an unseasonably large slice of the limelight owing to the latest break in the domestic football season.

By the time the Premiership resumes hostilities on Saturday, the county contenders may have been whittled down even further. The fixture list has come up with a number of intriguing matches, none more so than the meeting of leaders Kent and third-placed Yorkshire at Headingley on Wednesday.

Kent have been there or thereabouts for much of the summer, despite a suspect batting department which finally came good last week against Gloucestershire at Canterbury. A couple of draws might yet prove enough for them to secure their first Championship in 19 years. By contrast, Yorkshire's season really took off after the half-way mark with a string of wins over lowly opposition.

The batting of the South Australian Darren Lehmann and Craig White has improved dramatically as the campaign has progressed, while the left-arm seam bowling of Paul Hutchison has been a revelation in his debut season. His 34 wickets at 14 apiece have done much to make up for the regular absence of Darren Gough and the disappointing return of last year's Young Cricketer of the Year, Chris Silverwood.

Given fair weather they can expect a healthy turnout at Leeds, as they can at Cardiff, where Essex are Glamorgan's visitors. Last week's draw with Surrey was a big blow to Glamorgan, who had done everything right until half-way through the third day when Graham Thorpe took over and registered the highest score of his career. But it has been a feature of Glamorgan's season that they have bounced back from adversity, such as being bowled out for 31 by Middlesex back in June and skittling Lancashire for 51 in their very next game.

Neither Kent nor Yorkshire should expect Glamorgan to fade away, and the Welshmen have the easiest looking task next week when they visit Somerset, who have under-achieved all season. Yorkshire will not relish the prospect of facing Devon Malcolm and Dominic Cork at Derby, while Kent must take on Surrey's international XI at Canterbury without leg-spinner Paul Strang, who will have returned to Zimbabwe for their forthcoming series with New Zealand.

The fourth-placed side, Gloucestershire, have probably slipped too far behind and a visit to fifth-placed Warwickshire this week is probably not what they need. But whatever the outcome of that, and their final game at home to Lancashire, Gloucestershire can already lay reasonable claim to being the team of the season, and Mark Alleyne captain of the season, given the unlikely and totally unexpected strength of their challenge.

Warwickshire are not completely out of contention, although it would need two rank-bad performances from Kent, in particular, for the men from Edgbaston to come up on the rails for their third title in four years. A more realistic hope for their players, and many others, is a place in one of England's tour parties announced tomorrow.

A glance at the county averages makes interesting reading at this time of year, and if the selectors ever decided to base their judgements on statistics alone, this would be the party of 16 to tour the West Indies after Christmas:

James (Glam), Knight (Warwicks), Prichard (Essex), Ramprakash (Middx), Thorpe (Surrey), Hick (Worcs), Maynard (Glam), Ealham (Kent), Turner (Somerset), James (Hants), Brown (Warwicks), Phillips (Kent), Hutchison (Yorks), Smith (Gloucs), Tufnell (Middx), Betts (Durham).

A well-balanced squad, a fair spread of county representation, a couple of interesting new names, three all-rounders, a choice of three or four captains, Rob Turner to keep wicket based on the runs he scores and Devon Malcolm on stand-by owing to his sheer weight of wickets.

The selectors, of course, will know better, but at a time when other sports such as athletics and golf increasingly recognise the claims of performance over potential in picking international teams, perhaps we could do worse than to reward those who have played best over the course of a whole season.