Warwickshire tighten grip at top
Warwickshire 132 (Clarke 61, Russell 4-43) and 263 for 3 (Westwood 83, Chopra 58) beat Worcestershire 246 (Hughes 135*) and 145 (Patel 4-42) by seven wickets
It may be premature to state that Warwickshire have one hand on the Championship trophy but, to borrow an Olympic metaphor, they are leading at the bell and look strong going into the final lap.
A seven-wicket victory over Worcestershire has taken them 21 points clear at the top of the table with four games to go. While two matches against Nottinghamshire, currently in second place, will surely be the key, Warwickshire have the depth of batting and the strength of bowling to proceed with confidence. In Tim Ambrose, Rikki Clarke and William Porterfield, they also have a close-catching unit the envy of most international teams.
It looks as if they should have reinforcements soon, too. Ashley Giles, the club's director of cricket, confirmed that Warwickshire hope to sign Ian Blackwell on loan for the next three Championship matches to cover for the absence of Jeetan Patel. "He is our preferred choice," Giles said. "We have talked to Durham, but nothing is finalised."
Warwickshire won this game - their first Championship victory since May - by making fewer mistakes than Worcestershire. Despite being bowled out for 132 in their first innings - a ridiculously low score on a blameless pitch - they retained the belief to claw their way back into the game. Worcestershire, by contrast, never really looked as if they thought they would win.
Such belief is not born simply of arrogance. It is born of the knowledge that the Warwickshire team contains 10 men who have scored first-class centuries (by contrast only five of the Worcestershire team could say the same) and, particularly when Clarke and Chris Woakes are available, the quality and variety of bowling to unlock most batting line-ups on most surfaces. Clarke will be unable to bowl in the next Championship game but, subject to England call-ups, Woakes should be back.
Such depth renders Warwickshire hard to wear down. Whereas Worcestershire were overly reliant on three bowlers and four batsmen, Warwickshire have the ability to recover from almost any situation. For a squad that has three men absent on England (or Lions) duty, it has remarkable strength.
Asked to score the highest total of the game in order to win, Warwickshire's openers posted a stand of 100, before three players with international experience - Jim Troughton, Darren Maddy and Porterfield - calmly made sure of victory. Ian Westwood, who made a far from elegant but efficient 83, led the way, with Varun Chopra, whose obvious ability has won him an overdue Lions call-up, adding his sixth score above 50 in the Championship season.
"The way we batted in the first innings was disappointing," Giles said, "but the belief in the side never wavered throughout. We always thought we would win this game. Whatever they scored, we thought we could chase it down.
"We played good cricket last year, but not as good as this year. We've played the best cricket I've seen from us as a team this year. There is no pressure because of what happened last year. We didn't bottle it; we just didn't bowl out a good side on a flat wicket on the last day. Really, we're just trying to do all the same things."
This was a disappointing loss for Worcestershire. After taking a first innings lead of 114 runs and ahead, at one stage, by 222 with six wickets in hand, they will feel they squandered a match-winning position. In truth, the lack of depth in their squad hurt them. With Richard Jones, James Cameron and Alexei Kervezee - all of whom might have anticipated featuring in this side under normal circumstances - out of form (as well as being injured, in Kervezee's case), Worcestershire went into this game with three men making their Championship debuts. Kervezee, at least, will return for the second XI next week.
"The game was there for the taking," Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire's director of cricket, said afterwards, "but we couldn't capitalise on our opportunities. We lost five wickets for seven runs in the first innings and six for 37 in the second. Good sides take opportunities and, if you don't, you end up scrapping at the bottom of the table."
The result may well prove damaging. Had Worcestershire won they would have risen to sixth in the table. As it is they remain bottom and involved in a relegation fight with Test-hosting clubs such as Lancashire, Surrey and Durham. It pays never to write off Worcestershire - they have shown the pluck to come back from such reverses frequently in recent years - but they really are facing an uphill fight this time.
It does not take a genius to work out their issues. Phil Hughes, the overseas player, is the only man average above 29 with the bat and they have the tail of a diplodocus. With the ball, meanwhile, they remain uncomfortably reliant on Alan Richardson, though Chris Russell enjoyed an encouraging debut. Moeen Ali bowled tidily, too, but still lacks the bite to hurt teams on a regular basis.
"I hate to say it," Rhodes said, "but my money is on Warwickshire for the Championship. We need to win two more games and there might well be some more changes in the side.
"Russell did well. We've invested a hell of a lot of time in him and there has not been much fruit so far but he will play in the next game against Lancashire. The other two found it a tough baptism. We've been knocked to the canvas in our last couple of games. But now we need to get off the floor and score some points in the latter stages of the bout."
They do, at least, have a game in hand on their rivals. Matches against fellow strugglers Durham and Lancashire could settle their fate.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo