Cricket: Walsh lays down the challenge for Essex

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Essex 128

Gloucestershire 175-3

ESSEX were bowled out yesterday for 128, but they were not relaxing. The pitch was green, grassy and springy, and Courtney Walsh had the added motivation of being Gloucestershire captain. He took seven wickets for 38, and booked himself first place among the season's wicket-takers with 91 and another innings to come.

It is perversely appropriate that Essex should be finishing their season at Bristol, as they bask on top of the Championship table for the sixth time in 14 seasons. Essex and Gloucestershire, in their experience of the last 20 years, make almost complete contrasts as first- class counties.

Essex used to be the county without a ground of their own; now it is Gloucestershire who do not possess one. Essex, without great traditions, are the county that have come from nowhere; Gloucestershire are sadly destined in that direction, in spite of their traditions and partly because of them, for the conservative thinking they engender.

Essex are as close to being one big happy family as a county club could be, players, officials, members and paying spectators all contributing in their way. Gloucestershire are not unhappy: indeed their captain Tony Wright, his left arm currently broken, is one of the best on the circuit. But they have traditionally been sustained by one famous individual at a time - Grace, Jessop, Hammond, Procter, and now Walsh - and their contributions have been so massive that they have disguised many of the club's deficiencies.

It was Walsh who offered Graham Gooch one of those challenges he still seeks by reducing Essex to 20 for 4 in their 16th over. He disturbed Nick Knight with a bouncer, and had him caught behind fishing later in the over. Jon Lewis got the one real snorter, which ballooned to third slip. Otherwise the feature of Walsh's bowling was its straightness, wicket to wicket.

Gooch came in on a hat-trick, after the left-hander Martin Gerrard had taken the wickets of John Stephenson (over an hour for a single) and Nadeem Shahid, back when if forward he might have survived. Gooch flicked his first ball past leg-stump, then picked up boundaries with such eminent ease that Walsh had to come back for a second spell before lunch, bowling Gooch when he stayed on his crease and having Prichard leg before to the last ball before the interval.

Little remained of the Essex innings except for some hits by Mark Ilott and an exhibition by Peter Such. Protected by two thigh-pads on his front leg, Such made elaborate efforts to get into line: only, after he had been hit on the left hand by Walsh, he moved into line and then jumped out of the way.

Essex's total was little more than their 96 against Derbyshire on the opening day of their epic victory. For them to have then made 440 to win was to crown their season and silence any lingering doubt about their worthiness. Gooch's presence in the side, even though he was not officially leading, was enough to prevent complacency.

Yesterday, though, Essex drifted a little in the field after Gloucestershire had lost their opening pair to Mark Ilott, and less than perfect strokes. It was one of those rare occasions when Mark Alleyne translates his promise into runs, firstly with Tim Hancock, who is promising, and secondly with Matthew Windows, who looks even more so: a 19-year- old player, squat and crisp in footwork, and quick to pull, he advertised the benefits of Young England experience.

Essex finished in a position barely more promising than at Derby, 47 behind with seven Gloucestershire wickets to take. Not even Gooch could conjure a wicket in his sunset spell, but then 11 wins this summer - three more than the runners-up - is plenty enough.