THE WEEK AHEAD : Essex expect a strong finish

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As this column suggested last week, the shrewd money is on Essex to win the County Championship and the theory has been strengthened. They have dropped only one point from a possible 96 in their past four matches and risen to third in the table, four points behind Surrey and three adrift of Leicestershire.

A month ago, Essex stood ninth, but consecutive wins over Nottinghamshire, Durham, Middlesex and Somerset now allow time for relaxation, away from Championship rigours, as they play a three-day match against the Pakistanis, starting at Chelmsford on Saturday.

Essex have other delights to contemplate, with three of their remaining five games on home ground, beginning with Gloucestershire at Colchester on 22 August. They have enjoyed some memorable weeks at Castle Park under the old regime of two back-to-back Championship games. The format has changed but not Essex's expectations of victory there.

Whatever his England selection duties, Graham Gooch remains an influential figure on his county. With five centuries in 21 innings this summer, he has amassed 1,318 runs at an average of almost 63. The 32-year-old Peter Such, an off-spinner with his third county, has also stated a firm case for the merits of experience with 55 wickets.

None of the top three counties has a Championship match this week, with Surrey taking a rota break and Leicestershire meeting the Pakistanis at Grace Road today. It leaves Kent and Derbyshire, both seven points behind, and Yorkshire all with the opportunity to go to the top. At Canterbury, Kent play Somerset, whose oscillating form featured an innings win over Hampshire and an innings defeat by Essex in the past fortnight.

Derbyshire, often on the wrong end of matches against Nottinghamshire, should reverse the trend. Paul Johnson's team, beaten four times in five games since their only Championship win, have not finished as low as their present 17th position for 19 years.

Johnson appeared in the Nottinghamshire second team against Hampshire at Worksop College this week in an attempt to restore his own batting form, and made a half-century, as did Graeme Archer, another recent first- team player in search of runs. Their county still have a say in the destination of the title because they have to play five of the six leading teams.

Yorkshire, usurped at the top after successive defeats as far apart as Scarborough and Eastbourne, play Gloucestershire at Bristol tomorrow, while Warwickshire, soon likely to be dethroned champions, meet Glamorgan at Edgbaston. In the popularity stakes, Warwickshire have taken a dive this summer through a combination of a needle-sharp competitive approach and jealousy in some quarters about their success.

Multiple incentives beckon the South African A team, who aim to complete their 12-match tour unbeaten when meeting the TCCB XI at Chester-le-Street tomorrow. Their record shows five wins and six draws, major first-class victories being over Glamorgan, by an innings, Surrey and Worcestershire. Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire's acting captain, regarded the experience of meeting the tourists this week at New Road as valuable for his young team.

"Hopefully, a few players will have looked at the way the South Africans bowled and at their discipline in hitting the right sort of area. We probably bowled too many 'four' balls, too many not quite in the right place, but that was down to a little inexperience," he said.

Reuben Spiring, a member of the Worcestershire team, is among potential candidates for the annual award of Young Cricketer of the Year, elected by the Cricket Writers' Club. Players must be under 23 on 1 April this year and be qualified to play for England. Others likely to attract votes include Chris Silverwood, Michael Vaughan and Anthony McGrath, of Yorkshire; Danny Law, of Sussex; Gary Butcher, of Glamorgan; and the Northamptonshire pair of David Sales and David Roberts.

Sales had an intriguing start to his Championship career this summer with his scores reading: 0, 210 not out, 0 and 25. Isn't cricket confusing?

Michael Austin

County Championship Table

Top Six

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

1 Surrey (12) 12 6 1 5 37 44 192

2 Leics (7) 12 6 1 5 39 41 191

3 Essex (5) 12 6 2 4 41 39 188

4 Kent (18) 12 6 1 5 35 39 185

5 Derby (14) 12 6 2 4 38 39 185

6 Yorkshire (8) 12 6 4 2 37 38 177

l 1995 positions in brackets

Remaining fixtures

SURREY: v Nottinghamshire (22 Aug); v Northamptonshire (3 Sep); v Glamorgan (12 Sep); v Worcestershire (19 Sep).

LEICESTERSHIRE: v Hampshire (22 Aug); v Somerset (29 Aug); v Nottinghamshire (3 Sep); v Durham (12 Sep); v Middlesex (19 Sep).

ESSEX: v Gloucestershire (22 Aug); v Warwickshire (3 Sep); v Sussex (12 Sep); v Glamorgan (19 Sep).

KENT: v Somerset (15 Aug); v Glamorgan (22 Aug); v Nottinghamshire (29 Aug); v Hampshire (12 Sep); v Gloucestershire (19 Sep).

DERBYSHIRE: v Nottinghamshire (15 Aug); v Worcestershire (29 Aug); v Somerset (3 Sep); v Warwickshire (12 Sep); v Durham (19 Sep).

YORKSHIRE: v Gloucestershire (15 Aug); v Lancashire (22 Aug); v Essex (29 Aug); v Nottinghamshire (15 Sep); v Northamptonshire (19 Sep).