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September 18, 2003
One of the biggest holes in cricket history has just been filled. Sussex, the first proper county club to be formed, back in 1839, have just won the Championship for the first time. Fittingly, their captain Chris Adams was at the crease when the title was clinched - Sussex's 300th run against Leicestershire at Hove today gave them the bonus point that meant Lancashire couldn't muscle past.
Sussex were sixth last season, flirting with relegation back to the Second Division from which they sprang in 2001. Realistically, then, first-division survival was again the first priority at Hove. So what changed?
Mushtaq Ahmed joined, for one. There's rarely been a better example of how a good bowler makes a difference, unless it's in the way that Muttiah Muralitharan has kept Kent up this year since his Canterbury call-up. Mushtaq has sprinted past 100 wickets, a tally not approached by a spinner since Anil Kumble in 1995, and not by anyone since Andy Caddick and Courtney Walsh in 1998. Mushtaq's run-up is all bounce and bluster, but the ball arrives with interest at the business end. There has been a lot of talk of the financial incentives available to Mushtaq, but an even bigger one was the possibility of winning back his Test place. The word on the Brighton street is that the Pakistan selectors have taken the hint, so it has been a successful campaign all round.
Sussex have pulled off their title win without any superstars, unless Mushtaq counts. Murray Goodwin, the man who hit the vital four to clinch the title, is a fine player who really ought still to be strutting his stuff at Test level. James Kirtley made a handy start with England ... but the rest of the team is made up of up-and-comings (Robin Martin-Jenkins, Tim Ambrose, Matt Prior), there-and-thereabouts (Jason Lewry, Mark Davis) and been-there-done-thats (Tony Cottey, Richard Montgomerie, Adams himself).
When you think about it it's amazing that Sussex have never won the title before - all they had managed was seven second places, the last in 1981. Now that team really did have superstars - Imran Khan and Garth le Roux, for a start, not to mention a canny skipper in John Barclay and those assorted Ians, Greig and Gould.
Back in the 1960s Sussex had Ted Dexter, Jim Parks and John Snow - all automatic picks for England for long periods - not to mention a couple of Busses and a Nawab (of Pataudi). That team didn't even pick up a runners-up medal, although there were satisfying early successes in the newfangled one-day Gillette Cup.
Even longer ago another Indian prince ruled the roost down at Hove. KS Ranjitsinhji silk-shirted his way to 3000 runs in 1899 - the first time the feat had been achieved - and, to prove it wasn't a fluke, managed 3000 more the following year. Usually at the other end to Ranji was another Golden-Age great, CB Fry. He managed 3000 runs himself in 1901, the year he became the first to stroke six centuries in successive innings. And still they didn't come close to the Championship, although they were second in 1902 and 1903.
After Fry and Ranji there was Maurice Tate, arguably England's finest bowler of the 1920s, David Sheppard (later the Bishop of Liverpool), and brief cameos from the likes of Javed Miandad and Kepler Wessels. It's always been something of a family show: Ranji's nephew Duleepsinhji charmed Hove between the wars, for years the side wasn't complete without a Langridge or two, and then there were more Parks than in Paris or London. And yet none of those sides quite pulled off a title.
It helped Sussex this season that Lancashire took some time to work up a head of steam, and that Surrey (who seemed cast-iron certainties a month ago) eventually ran out of it. But no-one remembers who was second, they say. Congratulations to all at Sussex-by-the-Sea.
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.