Four-day Championship inspires great enjoyment

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The Independent Online
I worked out last Thursday morning, on the way to the Test match, that Warwickshire would win the County Championship, that Northamptonshire would finish second, Middlesex third and Yorkshire fourth. My confident predictions were based on home wins for the first two, against Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire respectively, and defeat for Middlesex at Yorkshire in the current round of key matches.

That evening, after Tim Robinson's double hundred, a century by Mark Ramprakash at Headingley, and Lancashire registering a first-day 18-run lead with six first-innings wickets in hand against Hampshire, Kennington bookmakers were eagerly awaiting Friday morning's business.

Shades of 1982 for me. I was playing for Leicestershire at Colchester against Essex, then over three days, and a win there gave us a 14-point cushion at the top of the table. Or so we thought. That evening it emerged that the leaders, Middlesex, who had made hardly any progress at all against Surrey in a rain-affected tie had somehow managed to concoct a result after the captains, Mike Brearley and Roger Knight, had got together for a chat before the final day. Middlesex scored around 180 and a creaking Fred Titmus, who had come out of retirement, did the rest with time to spare.

If the County Championship was competitive then, it is even more so now. In addition, four day cricket has meant that the best sides are more likely to come out on top. Bad luck is also less of a factor. Middlesex went on to win the title back then because their success against local rivals in a contrived finish was so damaging to our morale, we never recovered. The extra day, and correspondingly fewer fixtures, in 1995 means more time to regroup, that the best sides are more likely to win, that finishes are rarely contrived and that quality cricket is encouraged.

This week's cricket will confirm that and also highlight the importance of both home advantage and captaincy in the run-in for the title. Nowhere more so than at Uxbridge. Northamptonshire face Middlesex there, starting tomorrow, in a game that both sides must win to have any chance of winning the title. Rest assured, the wicket, which traditionally spins, will be a turner to suit Phil Tufnell and John Emburey.

In Mike Gatting , Middlesex have a skipper who will be hungry to exploit this. I saw his competitiveness first-hand on tour with England in 1987 when Shakoor Rana was made very aware of his determination to win the series against Pakistan. He may sometimes let a game he cannot win drift a bit these day, but if there is a chance of victory, Gatting seizes it,

Northamptonshire's match-winner this season is, of course, Anil Kumble. A dry wicket will suit him, too. But David Capel whose return to the county circuit has been largely unheralded may yet be the decisive figure. David has battled back this year from injury and the tragic loss of his second- born child.

Whatever the outcome, we are unlikely to have any cause for complaint. Over four days, given a wicket of true bounce, the best side wins nine times out of ten.

Defeat, or even just failure to win against Middlesex would end our push for the title. It would leave only the NatWest final this Saturday as an opportunity for a trophy this year. It would be welcome enough - indeed I enjoyed all my Lord's finals, win or lose - but all professional cricketers prize above everything else domestically, a championship winners' medal. With it comes the knowledge that you have won something that doesn't rest on luck, the toss of a coin, or a dropped catch (whatever people thought when Rob Bailey put down Robinson last week when he was on three).

To get to the NatWest final, we have won four games. The County Championship is a 17-match test over five months during which the good and the bad bounces even out. Warwickshire remain the most likely winners, but last Thursday hinted that further twists lie ahead. Saturday's heroics at Northamptonshire - over 500 runs in a day - confirmed it.

On the evidence of 1995, the Championship's competitiveness is surely beyond dispute. The Test series ends today, but this most enjoyable season is far from over. The County Championship in its four-day form is to thank for that.