Lawless Essex still looking dangerous

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James Whitaker, hoping to lead Leicestershire to their first County Championship for 21 years in his first season as captain, reckons five factors will determine one of the closest and most fascinating title races.

The winners, he believes, will be the side whose progress is least disturbed by injuries and England call-ups, and who find favourable pitches and enjoy the best luck with the toss and the weather.

What he did not mention was the effect of call-ups to the Australian side currently preparing for the Singer Cup in Sri Lanka, which may well have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of two of the challenging group. The limited-overs tournament, which runs until 7 September, deprives Yorkshire of Michael Bevan and Essex of Stuart Law.

It may be argued that Yorkshire's dream is already dead, the erstwhile leaders having dropped 27 points behind with four consecutive defeats. This may be true, but a recovery would have been more likely with Bevan present.

In the case of fifth-placed Essex, however, the loss threatens to undermine their best form of the season, a run of four consecutive Championship victories, which has prompted those sceptical of the Midland challenge represented by Derbyshire and Leicestershire to speculate that the biggest threat to Kent and Surrey may come from Chelmsford.

Essex have been impressive lately, with two victories by an innings and another by 292 runs among their recent haul. Law, the 27-year-old all- rounder from Brisbane, has made a major contribution, scoring 363 runs at an average of almost 73 in this period, lifting his aggregate for the season in first-class matches to 1,361 runs - 43 more than Graham Gooch.

It is in Essex's favour that they finish their programme with two fixtures at headquarters, against spent Sussex and unthreatening Glamorgan, by which time Law will be available again, if required. In the meantime, however, Essex must negotiate what they anticipate will be more difficult matches against Gloucestershire at Colchester, starting tomorrow, followed by Yorkshire at Headingley and Warwickshire at Edgbaston.

Essex have a 20-point gap to close on the surprise leaders Derbyshire and 18 on second-placed Kent but have a match in hand on both. Dean Jones's team, who went top when victory over Nottinghamshire on Monday gave them six wins in eight rounds, take a breather now before returning to face Worcestershire at Chesterfield, Somerset at Taunton, then Warwickshire and Durham at Derby.

Kent, who would have had a comfortable lead had rain not deprived them of a probable win at Derby in late July, go to Cardiff tomorrow and meet Nottinghamshire at Tunbridge Wells next week before sitting out a round, concluding against Hampshire at Canterbury and Gloucestershire at Bristol.

Having suffered the ignominy of the wooden spoon last season, Kent's coach, Daryl Foster, believes amends can be made in the most handsome fashion, but confidence is also high in Surrey (third) and Leicestershire (fourth), each of whom, like Essex, have five matches left. Surrey, at Trent Bridge tomorrow, lose Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe to Test calls but will probably ask Chris Lewis to dash north if not required at The Oval.

The Texaco Trophy may mean all three missing next week's clash with Warwickshire at The Oval, where Northamptonshire and Worcestershire are also due before the season is out, with Glamorgan at Cardiff in between.

Leicestershire, for whom Whitaker is poised to return from a calf muscle injury, take on Hampshire at Grace Road, starting tomorrow, with two more matches at their headquarters, against Somerset and Middlesex, sandwiching trips to Nottinghamshire and Durham.

Sunday's AXA Equity and Law League programme finds second against first when Nottinghamshire and Surrey meet at Trent Bridge, while Worcestershire (fifth) and Warwickshire (fourth) clash at New Road. Third-placed Yorkshire - on equal points with Surrey and Notts - face Lancashire at Headingley.

Jon Culley