Championship race reaches fever pitch as top two square up at Hove

Sussex take on Lancashire in a crunch match today and, as David Llewellyn reports, the home side, with Mushtaq Ahmed's spin, are full of confidence
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If Sussex have a weakness it lies in their seemingly high-risk policy of uncovering hitherto unrecognised overseas talent, encouraging it to blossom, then losing it.

Although Rana Naved-ul-Hasan was ultimately sidelined by a groin injury, his exploits for Sussex last season and this had already propelled him into the Pakistan squad for this summer's Test series against England.

Rana had been key in helping Sussex dominate the First Division up to the end of May, taking 34 wickets for very few runs and working well with Mushtaq Ahmed and his spell-binding leg-spin. His departure looked to have sunk Sussex's title hopes But on Rana's recommendation they signed up another Pakistani all-rounder, Yasir Arafat, who has been an instant hit with bat and ball, picking up 24 wickets in four Championship matches and smacking 234 runs at 46.8.

And that could spell trouble for Sussex as the title race unfolds, because according to the Sussex captain, Chris Adams, these sterling efforts mean Arafat could be gone before the season's end. "He is going to be a hell of a player at the highest level," Adams said. "Following Rana was a massive challenge, but he has met it, showing pace and fire with his bowling and scoring vital runs. We have been lucky to have him. But I'll be surprised if he doesn't figure in the one-day series against England."

Were that to happen it would be a blow to Sussex's title hopes, which have already been hit after the mid-summer interlude for the Twenty20 Cup. "Momentum is important and since the Twenty20 we haven't really got it back in the Championship. We had three tight games, two of which we drew and one we lost."

And there has been another cloud over the South Coast: a neck injury to Mushtaq which exposed another weakness. "The problem is we operate with a small squad and therefore we don't have depth," admitted Adams. "So we often ask players to play when they are not 100 per cent. And while we should not rely on one or two players, in Mushtaq's case we have to. So we pushed him back from that nasty injury for the next game against Middlesex. And he played in a lot of pain." That, too, was a draw, and another title setback.

Mushtaq played in the next match, against Warwickshire, in the latter stages of which, much to collective Sussex relief, he looked to be regaining his touch, recording his seventh five-wicket haul of the summer, although Sussex lost. "By the second innings against Warwickshire he was bounding in and producing deliveries that we had come to take for granted," Adams said.

So Mushtaq plays today, looking to add to his 329 Sussex wickets. He will be ably supported by Jason Lewry, Robin Martin-Jenkins and Luke Wright with the ball.

But the batsmen have also been key in Sussex's challenge. Murray Goodwin has been a run machine since moving to Hove in 2001. The Zimbabwe-born, naturalised Australian has passed fifty in five of his last seven Championship innings, three times going on to three figures. Goodwin's left-handed opening partner Michael Yardy has also struck a rich vein of form, while Adams himself is in good nick with a couple of recent hundreds and Richard Montgomerie looks to be recovering his touch.

Adams is mindful that, unlike the Sussex team which he captained to the 2003 title, this one bats a long way down the order.

"We can field three all-rounders in Martin-Jenkins, Wright and Arafat, so we are batting down to nine, even 10, since Mushy can be a bugger to get out."

Then, of course, there is home advantage. "We know the ground and how it plays. We perform well here. In fact, the ground has become something of a fortress for Sussex." It will have to resist some big siege guns from up north, but Adams is confident that Sussex can regain that lost momentum.

Their visitors, fuelled by youthful vigour, are determined to lay ghosts of run-ins past and win their first outright title since 1934, writes Jon Culley

If any more evidence were needed to illustrate Lancashire's determination to secure their first outright County Championship since 1934, then last weekend's amazing win over Nottinghamshire provided it.

Almost 200 behind on first innings but not asked to follow on, Lancashire bowled out the 2005 champions for 114 before chasing312 to win by five wickets. A week after their first defeat of the season against Kent at Canterbury, a second loss might have dented confidence yet, inspired by Glen Chapple's 6 for 35, they built a winning comeback around centuries from Mal Loye and Iain Sutcliffe that lifted them back to the top of the table.

"It has given us a lot of heart," their director of cricket, Mike Watkinson, said yesterday. After a frustrating history of near misses, the latest of which saw them finish second to Sussex in 2003, Watkinson is reluctant to talk up his side's chances but conceded that the win at Trent Bridge "may have been a significant moment". He remains only guardedly optimistic. Mindful, perhaps, that winning their last six fixtures in 1998 was not enough to catch Leicestershire, Watkinson pointed out that in a competitive race, in which not only Sussex but Kent and Hampshire are also contenders, that the seven weeks left is time for many twists.

Apart from their defeat at Kent, however, there have been few signs this year's challenge is about to fragment. Having bowled out Durham at Chester-le-Street to secure their first win in April, Lancashire claimed 20 Kent wickets at Old Trafford in May to notch a second before a stunning two-day defeat of Sussex in Liverpool launched a golden June in which matches against Warwickshire and Middlesex also finished in fine victories.

Given that head of steam, the interruption to four-day cricket imposed by the Twenty20 Cup - in which Lancashire were unsuccessful - came at the wrong time. But any seeds of uncertainty sown by the setback at Canterbury were blown away at Trent Bridge. Hard to think that this is the same side who were relegated two years ago.

Inevitably, it is the experienced hands who have created this year's opportunity. Loye, unlucky not to have seen his talents recognised at the highest level, has confirmed his status among the best No 3s in the country with 727 runs. Stuart Law has returned to his best with 658 at an average above 50, and there has been sizeable input from Sutcliffe and the captain, Mark Chilton, as well as Brad Hodge.

The bowling has been led by 32-year-old Chapple and the still more creaky Dominic Cork - 35 next week, who have shared 61 wickets, and Gary Keedy's left-arm spin has yielded 39. Also deserving of a mention are the younger faces. Sajid Mahmood took his first five-wicket haul in the June win over Sussex to reach 21 for the season before being called away by England.

Equally eye-catching has been 20-year-old Tom Smith, a seam bowler in the Angus Fraser mould, who has bagged 22 wickets. Andrew Flintoff and the injured James Anderson have scarcely been missed.

Smith, along with reserve wicketkeeper Gareth Cross, pace bowler Oliver Newby and leg-spinner Simon Marshall, have been nurtured by John Stanworth and Steve Titchard at Lancashire's fledgling England and Wales Cricket Board Academy. Among 19 used by the county in first-class games this year, 10 are under 25, which Watkinson will enthuse about, irrespective of how the title finishes.

"At the start of the season, we decided we would go with only one overseas player, setting down a challenge to the youngsters that they have responded well to," he said. "Their drive has rubbed off on the older players. That has to be a positive thing."

Tough at the top



Lancashire 10 6 1 3 31 30 157

Sussex 11 6 2 3 28 32 156

Hampshire 10 5 2 3 28 30 140

Kent 10 4 2 4 27 28 127



Today: v Sussex (Hove); Tuesday 8 Aug: v Yorkshire (Old Trafford); Thurs 17 Aug: v Middlesex (Old Trafford); Wed 30 Aug: v Warwickshire (Blackpool); Wed 13 Sept: v Durham (Old Trafford); Wed 20 Sept: v Hampshire (The Rose Bowl).


Today: v Lancashire (Hove); Wed 16 Aug: v Durham (Hove); Thurs 31 Aug: v Hampshire (Hove); Tues 5 Sept: v Kent (Canterbury); Wed 20 Sept: v Nottinghamshire (Trent Bridge).