Essex gamble pays off

The weather forecaster who suggested that there would be play at Chelmsford much before tea yesterday would have been told to refer back to his charts. Any cricket commentator who had forecast that, by tea, Essex and Warwickshire would be locked in a fascinating struggle which would almost certainly guarantee the winner promotion to the First Division of the County Championship next season would have been declared stark, staring bonkers. But the optimistic forecaster and the bold commentator were the ones to listen to.

The weather forecaster who suggested that there would be play at Chelmsford much before tea yesterday would have been told to refer back to his charts. Any cricket commentator who had forecast that, by tea, Essex and Warwickshire would be locked in a fascinating struggle which would almost certainly guarantee the winner promotion to the First Division of the County Championship next season would have been declared stark, staring bonkers. But the optimistic forecaster and the bold commentator were the ones to listen to.

Earlier in the afternoon, Glamorgan had snatched one of the two promotion places for which six teams were still competing on the last day of the first Championship of the new millennium. The fight for the last place involved tension rising faster than the damp, and declarations that would have been considered imprudent on any other day. But this was already one to remember.

At Bristol, Nottinghamshire set Gloucestershire 259 to win in 59 overs -- a total that bore some relation to experience. At Chelmsford, on the other hand, we seemed to enter a kingdom in which cricket was being played by new rules.

After losing a day's play on Friday, Essex were 192 behind Warwickshire with five first- innings wickets left. When play was scheduled to begin, a light rain defined by the umpire John Hampshire as a sea fret was rolling across the ground. When the rain stopped, the umpires trod warily on the turf, but, anxious to press on, told the groundsman to clear the tarpaulins. As the pitch was being mown, the two captains, Ronnie Irani and Neil Smith, stared at the scoreboard. Four lights were shining.

If they were to play, Irani could choose to bat on and try for a couple more bowling points to add to the four points for the inevitable draw. But if he did this, either Nottinghamshire or Gloucester, or even Worcestershire, would retain a statistical chance of promotion. To make sure one of the teams would go up, Irani and Smith had to do a deal.

During lunch the clouds began to lift, and while the umpires were inspecting the square, the players had begun to practise. Essex's Peter Such gave a hint of what might be in store when he said to a spectator: "We'll be doing more batting than bowling today." When umpire Barry Duddleston returned to the pavilion he announced that play would start at 1.30pm, and that he understood Essex would declare.

What no one had expected was a Warwickshire declaration after only three joke balls, off which Mark Wagh scored eight runs. Essex's target was 201 in 56 overs. It looked very gettable.

Alan Richardson, one of a pair of young fast bowlers replacing Allan Donald (injured) and Ed Giddins (sulking, apparently), seemed to confirm Warwickshire's generosity when he conceded eight wides and eight no balls in his first two overs. Three overs gone and Essex were 27-0. It looked easy, but things can change quickly under so much pressure.

Paul Prichard mishooked and Anurag Singh caught a high, swirling ball at midwicket; 36-1. Darren Robinson was brilliantly caught a centimetre from the ground at second slip; 46-2. Paul Grayson drove lazily at a swinging ball from Charles Dagnall; 51-3. Irani joined Stuart Law, and the scattering of Essex members sat back to watch the Australian guide them to safety.

Unfortunately Dagnall had not read the script. Nor had umpire Duddleston, because he gave Law lbw to a ball that might have been going down the leg side; 64-4. Warwickshire's huddles were becoming increasingly manic. As well they might. The ball was swinging and seaming, and the next batsman was Stephen Peters, a young man of whom much has been expected and little delivered. He started like a man who looked elegant but would not last long.

On the contrary, Peters outscored Irani, reaching his 50 off 64 balls, with eight fours. First came a 50 partnership and, with 23 overs to go, the hundred partnership, in 123 balls. Even with Gloucestershire playing well, Essex cantered home in the end. Moreover, they took second place.

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