Will Hawkes: Thrilling finale to season puts County Championship in pink

County Focus: Hampshire amazingly could yet beat the drop and may prove tough for title hopefuls Lancashire

For a competition whose very existence has been in doubt for 60 years – at a conservative estimate – the County Championship doesn't look in too bad nick. Another thrilling finale to the title race is in the offing, Hampshire are making a remarkable bid to escape what looked certain relegation, Surrey have made the Second Division promotion battle exciting – oh, and they're about to start using a pink ball down at Canterbury.

It was Jack Fingleton, fine Australian batsman turned peerless cricket writer, who suggested in Brightly Fades the Don that the Australians' unbeaten tour of 1948 was as much down to the feeble nature of so much county cricket as the invincibility of the tourists. We have heard that particular refrain a few times since, but not of late. The English Test XI is as strong as it has been since the late 1950s and the County Championship must take some of the credit.

Key was the move to two divisions in 2000, since when the dead rubbers which were as much a feature of the English summer as railing against the rain have been far less of a problem. Such contests do still exist – take Kent's home match against Glamorgan next week. Neither side can be promoted but, English cricket being the go-ahead sort of place it is these days, the match will not be without interest. The game will be played with a pink ball, under lights, starting each day at 2pm. The ECB are not the only ones hoping it proves a success.

More important issues are at stake, of course, at the top of the First Division. Lancashire looked the likeliest winners just a week ago but the lamest of surrenders to Worcestershire means they've handed the initiative to Warwickshire. All is not lost, though: they begin their penultimate game of the season against Hampshire today hoping to "bounce back", as Alan Partridge and numerous football managers would have it. Some runs from their batsmen would help: it's incredible they've done this well given that no-one who has played more than five matches this season is averaging higher than 33.50 for the Red Rose county.

Hampshire could prove a hard nut to crack, though. Since being virtually written off here a few short weeks ago, they've gone on an impressive run, beating title hopefuls Durham, Warwickshire and Somerset. At the centre of all this has been the returning Michael Carberry, who has the best part of 650 runs in just seven matches.

No one has achieved that sort of batting feat for Warwickshire, but they must be reckoned favourites for the title. Today they face current champions Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston having virtually sent Yorkshire down last week with a draw at the same ground. Notts are in no such danger but neither do they, stranded as they are in mid-table, pose as much of a threat.

Durham, of course, currently top the table but do not play this week having already completed 15 matches. Rain could prove to be their strongest ally, with bad weather likely across the UK this week. Surrey will be among the counties hoping for some sun as they seek to make up a 23-point gap to Northamptonshire in the battle to escape the Second Division.

The Brown Caps are also into the final of the CB40 competition, where they'll face Somerset, who famously finished second three times last season and lost this year's Twenty20 final. Can they finally come out on top? These last few weeks should be full of such tantalising uncertainty.

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