Mullally starts party

By Simon O'Hagan at Leicester Middlesex 190 & 194-5 Leicestershire 512
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The Independent Online
EVERYONE at Grace Road yesterday knew it was more a matter of when than if, but that didn't make the moment of triumph any less special. Leicestershire came off the field at tea with at least some of their attention still on a cricket match. They had barely sat down when they learnt that thanks to events 150 miles away they were county champions and pounds 65,000 richer.

As the news came from The Oval that Surrey had forfeited their first innings against Worcestershire, removing the last obstacle beween Leicestershire and their first title since Ray Illingworth led them to it in 1975, the crowd streamed across the outfield and gathered in celebration in front of the pavilion. "Leicestershire, Leicestershire," they sang, to the tune more commonly associated with Lancashire, heightening the sense of improbability that has surrounded the rise of one of the game's less vaunted sides.

Few gave Leicestershire a second thought when the predictions were made at season's start. Mid-table or just above (they were seventh last year) looked about right for a team containing no big names and an overseas player - the West Indian Phil Simmons - who in his previous season at the club, in 1994, had not exactly set county cricket on fire.

But as James Whitaker, the Leicestershire captain, has understood so well, unity of purpose counts for more than individualism, and it is this principle that has underpinned his team's drive to the top, much as it did when Warwickshire dominated the Championship in 1994 and 1995. The fact that they have used only 13 players has been crucial, and Whitaker's insistence that, in his eyes at any rate, they are all stars is surely more than just good team psychology.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Whitaker said. "We're very proud and very pleased, and that must be the understatement of the year. It's been a 100 per cent team effort. Everyone's played their part." Jack Birkenshaw, the Leicestershire coach, was a member of the team of 21 years ago and said he felt the spirit was even better this year.

While Simmons's contribution has been immense - 1,244 first-class runs at 56.44 and 56 wickets at 18.23 - Leicestershire have been wonderfully served by players whose best days might have been thought to have passed. Vince Wells, their 31-year-old opening batsman, has scored more than 1,300 runs at 45; Whitaker (1,100 runs at 54) is 34; and the 31-year-old David Millns and 36-year-old Gordon Parsons have proved that fast bowling is not the preserve of youth by picking up 115 wickets between them.

Alan Mullally, meanwhile, has progressed through the summer to the point where he has now nailed down his place in the England team. It was perhaps fitting that he and Simmons should steal the show on the day when it mattered.

Although Surrey were still in with a theoretical chance, the Championship had in effect been decided on Friday when Leicestershire made sure of picking up their full complement of eight bonus points and knew then that a draw would be enough. From an overnight position of 381 for eight in reply to Middlesex's first-innings total of 190 they were never going to lose, and after they had lost their ninth wicket at 400, Simmons and Mullally turned an atmosphere of excited anticipation turned into one of pure festivity.

Mullally's idiosyncratic batting had briefly embarrassed Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in the Test series against Pakistan. Against the lesser threat of Richard Johnson, Ricky Fay and even Angus Fraser he walloped four sixes and six fours in a career-best 75 that managed to upstage the suave Simmons's fourth championship hundred of the season. A 10th-wicket partnership of 112 helped Leicestershire to 512 all out, a lead of 322, and Mullally's remarkable day continued when, with his first ball, he had Paul Weekes caught at short extra cover.

Middlesex recovered to reach 134 for two at tea but proceedings from then on were deemed largely irrelevant. Suffice to say that when bad light stopped play with Middlesex on 194 for five, nobody was very bothered about going back on.

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