Moeen makes Northants heads spin
Worcestershire 163 (Shantry 55*, Pardoe 51, Hall 5-30) and 295 (Whiteley 56, Middlebrook 4-110) beat Northamptonshire 202 (Keogh 57, Richardson 5-70) and 141 (Moeen 6-77) by 115 runs
It was probably to be expected that Northamptonshire would suffer something of a hangover - literal or metaphorical - on the third day of this game.
Having secured promotion on day two, they understandably celebrated in the evening and produced a final-day performance lacking the intensity that has typified their cricket this season. A 115-run defeat is, perhaps, an underwhelming way to finish a fine season, but their main aims had been achieved. They would surely have approached the final day of this game somewhat differently in other circumstances.
But, in light of this result, it is worth reflecting on Essex's team selection for their match against Hampshire. Northants came away from New Road having gathered only four points from the game and, at one stage of day two, struggling at 157 for 8, they were far from certain of gaining even that many. So for Essex to have rested several of their leading players ahead of their final game with promotion still possible is baffling. Had they won their game and taken full bonus points, they would have been promoted.
The ECB has confirmed it will not seek an explanation of Essex's selection. But after a few years when the integrity of the Championship has been debated and protected - it is part of the reason English clubs are not participating in the Champions League - it seems utterly bizarre that a team with a chance of promotion, however slim, should not do everything in their power to make it happen. County cricket should not be a cosy, meritless environment where such tactics are allowed to go unchecked. If the ECB doesn't care for its own premier domestic competition, it cannot expect sponsors, broadcasters or spectators to care, either.
In years to come, this game may be remembered more for the number of leg-before decisions. Umpires Peter Hartley and George Sharpe gave 18 such decisions in all, with Hartley giving 11 of them. Only twice in the history of first-class cricket have more lbw decisions been given in a match and it has never happened in the UK, though 18 have been given on several occasions previously.
Such statistics reflect the nature of a low, slow wicket, which, as time wore on, provided substantial assistance to spin bowlers. Moeen Ali, gaining sharp turn and delivering a good arm ball, claimed the fourth five-wicket haul of his career as he exploited a Northants line-up lacking the appetite for a long battle of attrition. A couple of the batsmen also felt more than a little aggrieved at some of the decisions.
The pitch was no minefield, though. The fact that 17 wickets fell on the third day owed far more to the end of term mood that dominated than unplayable deliveries.
The mood was set early when Moeen, attempting to thrash one over long-on, sliced to point. While Ross Whiteley, putting bat to ball in impressive fashion, breezed to a 69-ball half-century, few of his team-mates lingered for long as Northants' spinners claimed five of the last seven wickets.
Only Lancashire had previously beaten Northants in the Championship this season, so this result is a welcome boost to morale at New Road after a trying campaign. Victory will see them finish in mid-table and with as many wins as Northants.
It would be wrong for Worcestershire to take too much consolation from this, though. While Moeen and Alan Richardson, respectively, are the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker in the Division, there are few other players who will remember the season with particular fondness. The likes of Tom Fell, a 19-year-old with a hint of class, and Matt Pardoe, who batted for 99 overs in this match in scoring 89 runs, offer some hope for the future, but the club seems to have settled rather too comfortably for a position among the also-rans. Take Moeen and Richardson out of the side and they would not excel among the minor counties.
There seems little serious hope of reinforcement, either. They are likely to declare a significant financial loss - in excess of £100,000 - despite hosting a four-day game against Australia, and finances remain tight. The club have already ruled out a move for the experienced wicketkeeper - such as Gareth Cross - they so patently require and will not attempt to re-engage Stephen Moore. They have, however, confirmed they will sign an overseas player in 2014.
There are reasons for optimism. The redevelopment of the ground continues and will increase the club's turnover and there are, among the youth teams, said to be a few decent young cricketers. Ed Barnard, a 17-year-old allrounder, has already made a century for England Under-19s and securing Moeen on a five-year deal is a remarkable coup. But the failure to develop talented young players such as Alexei Kervezee, Richard Jones and Aneesh Kapil is a major concern.
Richardson's continuing excellence also masks many issues. He delivered a 10-over opening spell in the second innings that gained his a 69th Championship wicket of the season, before Worcestershire's spinners shared the remaining nine wickets. David Sales fell 81 short of the 1000-run landmark that would have guaranteed him a new contract offer and, while David Willey struck three vast sixes in his brief-but-merry stay, it always appeared as if Northants' minds were more on their celebrations than this game. At least the early finish means they will have no trouble getting to Northampton in time for an open-top bus on Friday evening.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo