Sussex's title machine gives hope to England

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The Independent Online

At a time when the hyperbole surrounding Twenty20 cricket is reaching almost nauseating proportions, it has been reassuring and refreshing to see that the good old County Championship can still raise the occasional pulse too.

Can there have been a more intriguing or nerve-racking conclusion to a county season than that witnessed last week at Canterbury, Hove and The Oval? In the final two days of the season Lancashire, Durham and Sussex each spent time at the top of the table but, when the last ball of a thrilling finale broke Dominic Cork's stumps at The Oval on Saturday, it was Sussex who deservedly stood above the rest.

A radio interview with an almost delirious Sussex captain, Chris Adams, highlighted just how much the victory meant to him and his admirable side. Adams had spent five and a half hours anxiously awaiting the outcome of Lancashire's unlikely run chase against Surrey, and only when news came through that the red rose county had fallen an agonising 25 runs short of the 489 they needed to win their first outright title in 73 years could the champagne bottles be opened and the celebrations begin.

The crowds might not be the same as for Twenty20 but winning domestic cricket's major prize really means something. It is the culmination of six months' hard work and it proves, without doubt, who the best side in the land are. For the future well-being of the game it is to be hoped that this continues to be the case.

The sight of Adams being presented with the Lord's Taverners Trophy for the third time in five seasons is something England supporters can take comfort from, too. Adams and Mark Robinson, the Sussex coach, now run the show in Hove but the team's ongoing success has much to do with the legacy of Peter Moores, the England coach.

It was Moores, along with Adams, who pulled Sussex round in the late 1990s when it was not only the elderly who looked to wind down on the South Coast. The pair transformed the county from an unhappy rabble stricken by infighting into the most disciplined and well-organised side in the country. Following England's poor showing at the World Twenty20, many fans will believe that the national team are in a similar state to Sussex a decade ago, but in Moores they have the right man to lead them forward.

Adams, Murray Goodwin, Richard Montgomerie, Matthew Prior, James Kirtley, Jason Lewry, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Robin Martin-Jenkins have all played a major role in Sussex's recent success, but it has been the brilliant bowling of Mushtaq Ahmed that has revolutionised the fortunes of the club. In five years the 37-year-old former Pakistan leg-spinner has taken an astonishing 459 wickets, at an average of 24.7.

It was Mushtaq who bowled Sussex to victory on Saturday morning with seven second-innings wickets and 13 in the match. As a leg-spinner he has everything, bamboozling batsmen with a skilful array of leg-breaks, googlies, top-spinners and sliders. Facing him can be a humiliating experience. Has there ever been a better overseas player in the county game?

As good as Sussex's triumph is, it would not have been achieved had Lancashire held their nerve. Their expensively assembled squad led the championship race going into the final round of matches but they have gained the reputation of choking on the big occasion and their performance on the opening three days of the match at The Oval did nothing to rid them of the stigma, even if Lancashire will state that they came close to pulling off an epic victory.

Sussex may be county champions but Durham have to be the team of the year. Fifteen years ago there were many in county cricket who questioned the introduction of an 18th county. But now, having won their first major trophy – the Friends Provident – the Pro40 Second Division title and after finishing second in the First Division of the County Championship, they have much to be proud of.

England have benefited enormously from Durham's introduction, too. Steve Harmison, Paul Collingwood and Liam Plunkett have gained international recognition, while Graham Onions and Phil Mustard have been selected in one-day squads.

In Ottis Gibson they have the player of the season. Gibson finished with 80 wickets, including the first 10-wicket innings haul in England since Richard Johnson in 1994.

Mark Ramprakash had another wonderful season, scoring 2,000 first-class runs for a second consecutive summer. Ramprakash has now scored 97 first-class centuries and should become just the 25th batsman in cricket history to reach 100 hundreds early next season. Like Sussex's, it is a remarkable performance.

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