Nerves ease as promotion nears
Northamptonshire 431 for 5 dec (Sales 110, Middlebrook 109, Peters 68, Wakely 55) drew with Kent 418 (Nash 107, Key 101, Stevens 63, Middlebrook 6-78)
The penultimate Friday of the 2013 Championship could not have gone any better for Northamptonshire, all things considered. Beginning with a platform of 183 runs, they batted with great awareness and sense to secure maximum batting points midway through the 105th over. But there was an underlying interest in events elsewhere. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking over at Chelmsford," Northamptonshire's coach, David Ripley, admitted to ESPNcricinfo at the end of the day. He wasn't the only one.
News of Essex's early acceleration to 400 and beyond in their match brought some discomfort. Behind the scenes, journalists and scorers speculated over the possibility of Northants having just a seven-point lead going into the final round, should third-placed Essex skittle out Glamorgan and win by an innings.
BBC Radio Northampton, occupying the booth closest to the press, updated listeners every half hour. The ground's own PA was slightly more frenetic in updating the crowd on the fortunes of their rivals. But any anxiety felt in the stands was often immediately dissipated by the batsmen at the crease.
At 11.07am, Essex's run spurt was hinted at. Three minutes later, James Middlebrook took a single off Charlie Shreck to give Northants their first batting point. Another update came more than an hour later, by which point Middlebrook had departed for a well-deserved century - his first of the season - and Northants were closing in on 300 for 2. Essex had just passed 400, securing maximum bonus points in the match.
As David Sales and Alex Wakely returned to the middle after lunch, Essex had declared, leading by 102. When the clock ticked over to 2pm, the door from the scorer's box swung open, before a voice travelled down the corridor: "I do hope Glamorgan are behaving themselves!" An update across the PA system relaying news that Glamorgan were 61 without loss was greeted with cheers from the home support. There wasn't another until the game came to a close, by which point a win looked out of Essex's reach and David Sales had reached his third hundred of the season.
"With the rain that was about, I couldn't really ask for more," said Ripley, whose side travel to New Road to play Worcestershire in their final match of the season with a 20-point lead. They require just five points to guarantee promotion to Division One.
"It was key for the players not to focus on things elsewhere, especially when they were out in the middle. But this team have shown me that they can handle all kinds of pressure. We're going to Worcester with a feeling of great excitement at what's achievable next week. We can't wait to get stuck in."
Success for Northamptonshire, both plentiful and deserved, has been mainly attributed to the opportunities and responsibility afforded to the younger players, such as David Willey (who has signed a new three-year deal at the club) and Alex Wakely. But let's hear it for the old boy's bench.
Stephen Peters (34) and Middlebrook (36), who also recorded career-best figures of 6 for 78 in Kent's innings, got the side off to the perfect start on Thursday, before Middlebrook and Sales (35) both converted to three figures on the final day.
The back end of the season has seen Sales embark on an astonishing run; including his 110 today, he has scored 619 runs in six innings, at an average of 154.75. In terms of quality of shots to runs, this must rank as one of the finest knocks of the season. His cover drives were straight out of the handbook; his flicks through midwicket wristy and true; his pull shots guided expertly behind or in front of square, at will.
Watching him manoeuvre the field, in such a carefree manner, gives you an insight into the skill that still courses through his veins. When he flicked Mark Davies off his pads for six over square leg, in the new ball's first over, people were so amazed they nearly forgot to clap. It was that sort of knock. Watching innings like this, it is little wonder that Graeme Swann still regards him as one of the toughest batsmen he has ever bowled to.
Sales' contract is up at the end of the season but Ripley was keen to stress that he wants him to remain at the club and that a resolution had not been forthcoming due to issues of finance rather than desire. "There are some budgetary constraints, which is why we haven't been able to tell David that now. Not being able to bring that to a conclusion has not been ideal, but it will be resolved on September 30th."
Should Northants secure promotion next week, Sales' experience will be invaluable if they want to avoid going straight back down - something they have failed to do in their last two forays into the top flight.