Adams praying for the last grasp

Lancashire 450-6 dec Sussex 251 and 180 Lancashire win by innings and 19 runs

Thoughts will stir in Brighton this week of Jim Peters, of Devon Loch, of Gordon Smith and any other poor souls who saw the winning post and stumbled. But with the County Championship in touching distance, with history there for the taking and making, the nightmares everywhere in Sussex will perhaps especially feature Smith.

It is 20 years since the striker was through on goal in the dying seconds at Wembley with only the goalkeeper to beat. The goal would have given Brighton and Hove Albion the lead, and the FA Cup for the first time. Smith mistimed his shot, Manchester United's Gary Bailey brought off a brave save and Albion were hammered in the replay.

In those anguished moments the commentator had uttered with remarkable prescience: "And Smith must score." For seasons afterwards the club's fanzine was called precisely that.

And now, Chris Adams must take the Championship. So he and Sussex should, but yesterday the finishing line remained tantalisingly close while out of his team's grasp. Instead of acquiring the draw they needed, they lost to Lancashire by an innings and 19 runs. Sussex still need six points to be certain of their first title. They are the oldest county club, formed in 1839, and since the competition was formally established in 1890, they have been second seven times.

Lancashire are the only other contenders left, and the overwhelming defeat they inflicted yesterday may give them inspiration and deflate Sussex. The final matches start on Wednesday: Lancashire play Nottingham away, Sussex play Leicestershire at Hove. Sussex are 16 points ahead, so six points would suffice, even if Lancashire gained maximum points, as Sussex have more wins. In both cases the opposition are already relegated, which means they have nothing to play for, but also nothing to lose.

It is close, and with the weight of history bearing down on Sussex it may yet be too close. Still, Lancashire also suffer in that regard. They last won a title outright in 1934. Hove will be packed, Trent Bridge less so. Adams was in a calm mood as he reflected on the defeat shortly after his side were all out for 180, having lost their last eight second-innings wickets on a rapidly deteriorating pitch. He was aware that his destiny will soon unfold, but he was taking it in his stride.

"I think we came up here probably looking to gather points rather than looking to play the game with the tenacious attitude we have shown against every team this season. But Lancashire played excellently and they batted brilliantly on a lovely wicket. We knew the pitch was wearing, but we thought it was going to be a good day and that we were going to do it.

"I haven't chastised the team at all. If you had offered me this position at the start of the season, 16 points ahead going into the last game, I'd have taken it.

"We will go to Hove and play the sort of cricket we have been playing. But if we don't win the title it will be because we don't deserve to, needing only 10 points from the last two matches. We will have been beaten by a better team, nothing else."

But the odds surely are that the admirable Adams will galvanise his charges one final time. He has been frequently lambasted for the size of his salary - usually rumoured to be around £80,000 - but he is on the verge of delivering to Sussex something they have never had.

Who would have thought that a lad from no-nonsense Derbyshire could emerge in genteel Sussex to do this? It is as if a bit of rough from up north has gone down to the posh people and shown them how to go on. He and the coach, Peter Moores, have instilled discipline, awareness and belief with a set of splendid county cricketers.

The achievement, do not forget, would be all the greater considering the mess that Sussex were in at the end of 1997, when six players left and the committee and chief executive were effectively sacked.

Adams, not out on Friday night, had his jaw stuck out as he went out to bat yesterday. Every shot he played seemed to say: "Thou shalt not pass". Not too much bothered Tony Cottey at the other end either, though both batsmen were occasionally beaten by Gary Keedy's spin.

After an hour, John Wood got one to lift unfathomably and all but unplayably at Adams. He could only glove it to point. Somehow that breached the dam. Two more wickets fell quickly, and it was only a matter of time.

Murray Goodwin played an innings of courage and resilience. He had needed seven stitches in a cut near the eye during his century the previous day. Late on Friday he had to return to hospital with the wound refusing to stop bleeding. But he was undaunted in a comfortably composed innings of 58, and looked long and hard when an lbw verdict was given against him.

But the cry at the close with 21 overs left was: and Adams must clinch the title.

Threshold of a dream Turning points on the Sussex title trail

The overseas signing

To general derision, Sussex announced that they had recruited a second overseas player for the 2003 season, the Pakistani leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed. By common consent, Mushy was past his best, a bizarre signing, and he created amusement by declaring his ambition to take 100 Championship wickets in a season. Ninety-nine wickets (and counting) and five 10-wicket hauls later, nobody is laughing.

Leicestershire's help

Back in April, Surrey showed unexpected vulnerability when they followed on against Lancashire. That blip seemed to be behind them, but then both their matches against Leicestershire were crucial. In May, they were two wickets away from completing an innings win but were thwarted by rain. In August, Leicestershire again followed on, 335 runs behind at the start of day three. They amassed 636 for 4 and Surrey were cracking.

Wins against Essex

When Sussex beat Essex for the first time at Arundel, captain Chris Adams deliberately belittled their challenge. When they beat them for the second time, at Colchester, inside three days, there was no point in being cautious: Sussex were top for the first time. Unsung reserve seamer Billy Taylor took the last four wickets to show there was more to them than Mushy.

Revival against Middlesex

The sort of fightback that wins titles. Middlesex had made 392 and Sussex were 107 for 6. The South African-born men of Brighton, Matthew Prior and Mark Davis, then assembled a partnership of almost 200 which gave them a substantial lead. Mushtaq did the rest.

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