Test of stamina will decide the Championship

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The Independent Online
Too much cricket, Wasim Akram said, is the bane of the English game. To underline his point, the Pakistani captain might have waved the domestic fixture list, which requires four of the five main contenders in the race for the County Championship to begin the decisive phase of the season by playing on nine consecutive days.

None face a tougher schedule than Essex, for whom the sequence goes one rather important day further.

The new leaders begin the defence of their perch against Yorkshire at Headingley tomorrow (fitting in a Sunday League match along the way, of course), then move directly to Edgbaston to meet the outgoing champions, Warwickshire, on Tuesday, in a contest that may well not conclude until the following Friday evening - roughly 16 hours before they take the field at Lord's for the NatWest Trophy final.

In most sports, such a programme would be rightly considered intolerable. In cricket, however, it is normal, the kind of torture the fixture planners contrive every year as they try to squeeze in the remaining games before the nights draw in. Whichever team emerges still standing should be seen as worthy champions.

None the less, it may still be Essex, whose victory over Gloucestershire at Colchester on Monday was their fifth in succession, even though it would not have taken them to the summit had the weather not been cruel to Leicestershire, who needed only one Hampshire wicket when time ran out at Grace Road.

Keith Fletcher, their sage former coach now vaguely titled as cricket consultant, does not rate this year's side as out of the ordinary, yet they possess a resilient character, not to mention the continuing inspiration of Graham Gooch. Having been a member of all six of his county's Championship teams (since 1979), the experience he passes on must be worth many points.

But if mental toughness is an Essex quality, it can be found also in Derbyshire and Leicestershire, in whom self-belief has been instilled where little winning experience exists.

Derbyshire, who last won the title in 1936 and have lately failed time after time to make the most of talented players, look much more likely to stay the course under the guidance of Dean Jones and Les Stillman, their captain-and-coach partnership from Victoria.

Idle during the latest round of matches, Derbyshire lost their lead, but with Kent and Surrey frustrated by the weather, as well as Leicestershire, they resume only four points off the pace. A win over Worcestershire at Chesterfield, starting tomorrow, would enable them to go to Somerset on Tuesday with excitement running high.

With Devon Malcolm, Philip DeFreitas and Andrew Harris at his disposal, in addition to Dominic Cork, Jones has the weaponry to sweep aside any challenge on damp autumn days, but he knows the importance of keeping feet on the ground.

"The important thing is we take each game as it comes and stay focused," Jones says. "If we win the games, the Championship will take care of itself, and I believe we have the ability to beat teams on most tracks."

But the credentials of Leicestershire, at home to Somerset tomorrow, are no less compelling. They have been captained splendidly by James Whitaker in his first season at the helm and repeatedly inspired by the all-round efforts of Phil Simmons. But they possess an array of match-winners - from the improved batting of Vince Wells and the developing spin-bowling of Matthew Brimson and Adrian Pierson to the explosive qualities of David Millns and Alan Mullally and the mature reliability of the once hot-headed Gordon Parsons.

Surrey, overshadowed by the latest brouhaha over Chris Lewis, may be slipping out of it finally, while Kent have the disadvantage of having played a game more than all their close rivals, so that a win over Nottinghamshire at Tunbridge Wells before they break for 10 days looks crucial.

Nottinghamshire now have only Durham below them in the Championship table, quite in contrast to the Sunday League, in which only Yorkshire are above them. Two points cover the first five in the table, with Surrey against Warwickshire, each on 38 points in third place and fourth, the weekend's outstanding game.