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September 18, 2007
Despite all the one-day success achieved by Lancashire during the 1990s, it is the Championship crown the club has craved. They shared it with Surrey in 1950, but not since 1934 has the pennant flown outright over Old Trafford. There hasn't been any silverware (excluding the second division National League title in 2003) coming their way since the NatWest Trophy/National League double in 1998.
To be in this position has required a real show of character from Lancashire after they were dumped out of Twenty20 finals day in a one-sided semi-final against Gloucestershire. Supporters began venting their frustrations at coach Mike Watkinson and captain Mark Chilton, but the pair have quietly gone about rebuilding the season.
To secure the title Lancashire will have to buck their recent trend of slipping up when a prize is within their grasp. Since 1998 they have lost eight semi-finals and two finals, so probably want to have the points situation as far away from their minds as possible.
It was thought for Lancashire to maintain a serious title challenge that Muttiah Muralitharan would have to play a leading role. But he picked up an injury against Kent at the end of August and was due to leave in any case for the World Twenty20 in South Africa. Instead, the runs of VVS Laxman have played a key role, his century against Warwickshire building a match-winning lead at Old Trafford last week.
Glen Chapple and Dominic Cork have also found a new lease of life in the closing weeks of the summer. They are the team with momentum, but in the tightest Championship race for many seasons any slip-ups will open the door for the chasing pack.
Durham, who beat defending champions Sussex in the last round, are second and still hunting for their first Championship crown in a season that has already brought them the Friends Provident Trophy and Pro40 Division Two title. Dale Benkenstein's team travel to Kent, but however their season finishes it has been a triumph for the club.
Sussex shouldn't be discounted, especially as they are playing long-since relegated Worcestershire who have struggled in the four-day game when they have managed to get onto the field. But Chris Adams' side will have taken a severe psychological blow in their crushing defeat to Durham and are also without Rana Naved-ul-Hasan (dislocated shoulder) and Murray Goodwin (family bereavement) for the final round. Adams never gives up, but this time it is out of his hands.
Mathematically, Yorkshire and Hampshire - who face each other at Headingley - are not out of the race but it would need an extraordinary turn of events for either side steal the title. After leading for such a large portion of the season, Yorkshire fell away at the vital time. It also appears that Shane Warne's wait to get his hands on a county prize will have to wait and he has just one year left on his contract.
In a season where the weather has had such an impact, it would be dangerous not to expect it to play a part even though late-summer sun has appeared. If matches are truncated it will mean captains having to take some bold decisions in the pursuit of victory. But any risks will be worth the gamble for the reward on offer.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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