Headingley hurdle looms for Middlesex

Cricket
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The Independent Online
While most eyes will be turned towards The Oval over the next few days, true devotees of the national summer game will be taking sidelong glances as the three-horse race that is the County Championship enters its final stages.

Of the three contenders, Middlesex, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, it is Middlesex who appear to have the most difficult task as they take their slender five-point lead to Headingley. Yorkshire are not only in fifth place, their confidence is boundless after last weekend's thumping Roses victory over Lancashire. In addition, Darren Gough may well turn out. Add to that Middlesex's loss of Angus Fraser and, probably, Phil Tufnell to England duties and this looks the biggest obstacle between Mike Gatting and his third title in six years.

Dermot Reeve, of course, is bent on his second in two. Warwickshire will be happy that they are at home against opposition residing in the mid- table comfort zone, but slightly less so knowing that nothing fires Worcestershire up like the midlands derby. But Worcester will be a lesser side while Graeme Hick dodges the bouncers at The Oval - Gavin Haynes steps in - and their hopes of a top-five finish were dented by this week's defeat by Sussex at Eastbourne. Tom Moody's call to arms was hardly of Henry V proportions either. "We know how important this match is to Warwickshire, but we are also looking for a strong finish to the season," he said.

The champions are likely to recall Dougie Brown, but Nick Knight, of course, is an absentee with his broken finger.

Northamptonshire will expect few problems at home to Nottinghamshire, whose resistance has not been conspicuous recently. Allan Lamb's side await a fitness test on fast bowler John Hughes, with all-rounder Tony Penberthy standing by.

Nottinghamshire have recalled the former England Under-19 player Mathew Dowman and the experienced left-arm spinner Andy Afford for their match at title contenders Northamptonshire. Dowman gets his call-up after Colin Banton broke his left arm in the recent Championship match against Warwickshire.

Afford comes in for teenager Usman Afzaal after producing some impressive performances recently in the second XI.

The opener Paul Pollard is also fit to take his place having recovered from the bruised ankle which forced him to miss the Sunday League defeat at the hands of Warwickshire last weekend.

As for the rest, they will be playing for points if not titles.

The Kent skipper Mark Benson is set to return against Essex at Canterbury after testing his fitness in a 40-over benefit match for Steve Marsh. Benson came through a long net yesterday and is likely to open with Trevor Ward. Matthew Fleming is also in the squad, with Steve Herzberg left out of the side that lost against Middlesex.

The Essex trio, Mark Waugh, John Childs and Neil Williams, who all missed the match against the West Indies because of niggling injuries, will play. Mark Ilott will also figure if he fails to make the England side. Otherwise Steve Andrew will be recalled for only his second Championship match of the season.

Surrey, already missing their captain Alec Stewart because of a broken finger, have an injury headache over his stand-in Adam Hollioake for the match with Derbyshire at Derby.

Hollioake, who is just getting over a fractured foot, suffered a cracked rib while turning out for the Test and County Cricket Board XI against Young Australia at Edgbaston last week.

Hollioake will still lead Surrey as they go in search of a third victory under his captaincy, but he is unlikely to be able to bowl. Surrey have included three spinners in a party of 12, Richard Nowell, off-spinner Andy Smith and Nadeem Shahid.

Shahid is included more for his batting and depending on the wicket, Nowell or Smith is likely to miss out. Paceman Joey Benjamin, who has been out of action with ankle ligament damage for a month, will travel with the squad and is set to turn out in the Sunday League game.

The South African Test batsman Daryll Cullinan will be back in the Derbyshire side after sitting out the defeat by Gloucestershire earlier with strained stomach muscles.

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