The unbeaten take a bow

Leicestershire 585-6 dec Surrey 146 and 228 Leics win by inns and 211 runs
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The Independent Online
A FEW minutes before noon at The Oval yesterday Leicestershire became champions for the third time. There were still points to be allotted, matches to be finished and results to be confirmed but all that was mere arithmetic.

When Ian Salisbury was leg before to Vince Wells while playing well forward, the race for the title was over.

It was the seventh Surrey wicket to fall, it gave Leicestershire their third bowling bonus point and formally ended Lancashire's faint hopes. Surrey still had a chance of finishing top if they could recover sufficiently to win the match but as they were precisely 500 runs adrift at the time this was not a prospect to be entertained even by supporters of the Brown Hatters wearing rose-tinted spectacles with knobs on.

The match was to last another six and a half hours but they were nothing more than a prolonged victory ceremony. Leicestershire won by an innings and 211 runs with a performance as solid as Surrey's was hollow. The defeat was the second worst in their history.

As a contest, it was hardly the finale to the Championship which had been either hoped for or expected. Surrey, runaway leaders for much of the summer, had faded in the straight and were found to have nothing in reserve as the tape loomed. They were dismantled by a cheerful but clinical side who simply refused to stop chasing.

The ground was hardly packed for the outcome. It was not so much that there was room to swing a cat as an entire menagerie. But that has long been the way of the Championship and Leicestershire's attendances at Grace Road for the competition have been poor all season. Small wonder that the players have learned to be inspired by each other.

The moment of triumph when Wells's appeal was upheld provoked Leicestershire's injured but inspirational captain, Jimmy Whitaker, to run on to the pitch. At least it would have been a run if his recovering knee had allowed anything more than a hobble. The players gathered round him in the sort of huddle that Whitaker introduced as part of his team philosophy upon his appointment two years ago. They won the title then, too, having first done so in 1975.

Leicestershire's finish to the season has been the stuff of champions. They came to The Oval for the climactic match after five consecutive wins and, in all, eight from nine matches. They are only the fourth side since the Second World War to win the title without losing a match, following Glamorgan (1969), Warwickshire (1972) and Hampshire (1973). Indeed, they have lost only twice in three seasons and 50 matches.

Leicestershire have exhibited the virtues of being a team in the proper sense: playing for each other. If Whitaker has been instrumental in the construction, the original design was that of their wise coach, Jack Birkenshaw.

"They do really enjoy their cricket," he said. "It's never a drudge to go out there, they like playing, practising and everything to do with the game. They come to the ground every day looking forward to it. I don't have to motivate them to play."

Birkenshaw lauded Whitaker's non-playing contribution but also noted the improvement of the left-arm swing bowler, Alan Mullally, one of only two Leicestershire representatives on England tours this winter. "He's bowled much better, pitching it up, swinging it in, got married." The last of those, in Birkenshaw's book, was of huge significance to the other two. "She's a great lady, she gives him stick. I'd like them all to be married." Obviously elementary, this coaching business.

Surrey chose the wrong match to be woefully poor but it demonstrated how much they have relied on the mystery spin of Saqlain Mushtaq, who departed for international duty last week. At the start yesterday, Adam Hollioake and Alec Stewart launched token resistance but their parting signalled collapse. At least there was the sight of Ben Hollioake assembling some handsome strokes.

Surrey batted better second time round on a wearing pitch but not much better. Graham Thorpe, thankfully, got his first runs (two of them) in five innings but was spectacularly run out by Chris Lewis.

Resistance came only with an eighth-wicket stand of 71 between the elder Hollioake and Martin Bicknell, and another for the last wicket between Hollioake and Rupesh Amin. But the Championship, all but a lost cause already, had ended with Salisbury.

Poor Salisbury. His season had begun with such hope. He bowled himself out of Test contention and here he was cast in the role of the chap who surrendered the title. He did not deserve that. Leicestershire did.