Sussex retained the County Championship with their seventh win of the season but had to wait five and a half hours to uncork the celebratory champagne as Lancashire made a gallant attempt to chase down an improbable target of 489 to beat Surrey here, where their dismissal just 25 runs short means their quest for a first title since 1934 will be extended by at least another 12 months.
Durham led the table yesterday morning after an eight-wicket win over Kent on Friday but by 12.26pm Sussex had regained pole position when a 90th wicket of the season for spinner Mushtaq Ahmed wrapped up victory over Worcestershire by an innings and 14 runs, despite spirited resistance from Moeen Ali (85) and Gareth Batty (84). Mushtaq finished with 13 wickets.
To overtake Chris Adams' side, Lancashire needed to post the second-highest winning fourth-innings total in domestic cricket – which made going so close, when Dominic Cork was last out for 47 just after 6pm, with 25 balls left, especially hard to take after VVS Laxman (100) and Stuart Law (79) had spearheaded a magnificent attempt.
"I've never seen a dressing room like that in my life," the Lancashire captain, Mark Chilton, confessed. "They are completely devastated. But I'm proud of every player."
Glen Chapple, the 33-year-old pace bowler, described the defeat as "the biggest disappointment of my career. It was agony. There was never a point when winning it looked easy but we were always in the game. As soon as we felt we might be getting on top we would lose a wicket, although when you are trying to score at four and a half an over things are always going to happen. It is devastating to go so close but not get there."
The Sussex captain Adams congratulated Lancashire. "If they had pulled it off they would have been worthy champions – It's been the most excruciating afternoon." But he insisted his team deserved the title. "You play 16 games, the best team has to win the trophy and we proved that this year, if only by the slimmest of margins."
Law and Laxman put on 115 together before Laxman, having made 100, holed out at deep midwicket to Mark Ramprakash, the man whose two centuries were the key to Surrey's victory.
Momentum was regained after Steven Croft added 75 with Law and Lancashire's effort continued after they fell in five balls to Jade Dernbach, leaving Lancashire five down, still 182 short. Luke Sutton and Chapple added 51 for the sixth wicket, Cork and Sajid Mahmood 52 for the eighth. But the finishing line proved just too far away.