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High drama in offing as title goes to wire


Of course, it could be straightforward with barely a twist or turn before Warwickshire, leaders of the County Championship this morning by three points, step forward to receive their prize on Thursday evening. But then pigs might fly.

Straightforward? How can it be, given what we remember about the end of last season when the situation, going into the final round of matches, was remarkably similar to the one which tantalises us now? And how can it be, after the high drama of Saturday afternoon just gone, when Lancashire snatched a vital win from the depths of despair?

No, the good old County Championship seems hell-bent on coming up with another cliff-hanger. And, although no one would have hinted at this possibility 12 months ago while perspiration was being wiped from countless brows, the finish of 2011 could be even closer than that of 2010.

A year back, Nottinghamshire were two points ahead of Somerset and seven clear of Yorkshire. By the end of a breathtaking final day, Notts claimed the bowling bonus point they needed (against Lancashire) to finish level with Somerset and claim the title by virtue of being on the right end of the competition's first tie-breaker: most wins in the season.

This year, Warwickshire lead Lancashire by three points with Durham a further 12 adrift. And while just about anything could still happen, if the top two end up all square on points again then neither of the first two tie-breakers (most wins followed by fewest losses) will be able to separate them as things stand.

So another shared title for Lancashire, like their last, in 1950, when Surrey joined them as joint winners? No, those days are long gone. The third tie-breaker (and there are five in all) stipulates that the team gathering most points in matches between counties locked together will be crowned champions. And that, it can be revealed, is good news for Lancashire and their fans who dream of a first outright title for 77 years, thanks to the Red Rose having won at Edgbaston and drawn on home turf.

Of course, Warwickshire will be hoping to take all the heat out of this week by doing to Hampshire at the Rose Bowl what they have done four times already this season: score big and win by an innings. The Bears call it "Route One" and they have an ideal team for the tactic because they bat long and bowl hard, with all-rounders like Rikki Clarke, Chris Woakes and Keith Barker to support pacemen Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin.

The bad news for the leaders is that while Lancashire's opponents, Somerset, may be turning their thoughts to Saturday's CB40 final at Lord's, Hampshire could claw their way off the bottom of the table and up to safety by beating Warwickshire.

Yorkshire, whose season is over, will be relegated if Worcestershire earn even a point against Durham. But Worcester may need as many as eight to guarantee their survival in the event of Hampshire thumping Warwickshire.

And Durham? Outsiders for the title, certainly, but they are not out of it. A good win for them and bad results for the other two contenders will see the title heading to Chester-le-Street for the third time in four years.

As for the Second Division promotion picture, rain rather than the opposition (rock-bottom Leicestershire) should be the only worry for leaders Middlesex. And Surrey can make it a London double by beating Derbyshire while the other hopefuls, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, do each other down when they meet at Wantage Road.

How the title will be decided

Who can win the title?

Warwickshire will be champions if they beat Hampshire and take 22 or more points.

Lancashire need to earn at least three more points than Warwickshire to finish ahead of the current leaders.

Durham will be crowned champions if they beat Worcestershire while both Warwickshire and Lancashire fail to win their games, provided they take 16 more points than Warwickshire and 13 more than Lancashire.

How the points system works

A team can take a maximum of 24 points: 16 for a win, plus up to eight bonus points (five batting, three bowling). There are eight points for a tie and three for a draw. If teams are level on points at the end of the season, tie-breakers in the following order decide placings: 1 Most wins 2 Fewest losses 3 Most points in matches between level teams 4 Most wickets taken 5 Most runs scored.


Today's key games

Durham v Worcestershire, Emirates Durham ICG, 10:30

Hampshire v Warwickshire, The Rose Bowl, 10:30

Somerset v Lancashire, Taunton, 10:30