County Championship Division One September 22, 2007

There's life in the old dog yet



One wicket from victory ... and the title. But there was still a four-and-a-half hour wait © Getty Images
The County Championship takes more than its fair share of flak. Uncompetitive, poorly supported, irrelevant .... only this week Bob Willis, one of its most vociferous detractors, weighed in with some all-too-familiar gripes.

And yet it produced one of the most enthralling finales to a season in memory. It might not be perfect but, when it can generate such prolonged tension as it did today, it still has life and purpose.

As the final day of the season began Durham sat at the top of the table courtesy of their three-day victory over Kent. Sussex still had to polish off an obdurate Worcestershire while, at The Oval, Lancashire were chasing a distant target of 489 and a place in history. Most people had written them off.

Sussex, heavily disguised as Mushtaq Ahmed, duly did their bit in an hour and a half. The large crowd at Hove celebrated in a restrained way and then turned their attention to the match in London. Hundreds continued to mill around the County Ground like expectant fathers, unwilling to let go of the season until their county's fate was known. The PA advised them to head off and come back later. Few took any notice and chose to bask and wait with their fellow fans in the late-September sunshine.

Inpromptu games of cricket took place on the outfield and some of the Sussex players, too nervous to watch the Lancashire match on TV, joined in as players or umpires. There was a real sense that everyone was in it together.

At lunch, Lancashire were 178 for 2 with VVS Laxman and Stuart Law in calm control. Even though Laxman fell soon after completing his hundred, to loud cheers at Hove, the tension grew as the afternoon session went on. Then two roars from the dressing room just before tea told the assembled spectators of the fall of two more wickets.

While all this was going on ECB officials, in possession of the Championship trophy and the winners' cheque for £100,000, were poised in their sponsored car on the M23, midway between the two venues. If they headed for Hove at the fall of those wickets, they were soon doing a U-turn and heading back towards Kennington as news filtered through that Lancashire were refusing to lie down.

For the Sussex players it was too much. Mushtaq Ahmed went home, others got changed, some stayed in their kit. Beers were drunk but the tension grew. "It was the most excruciating afternoon," Chris Adams, Sussex's captain, admitted. "We were panicking like hell in there." At The Oval the anxiety in the Lancashire corner was far worse, almost not daring to believe that they could pull off a sensational win.

And then Dominic Cork swung and was bowled by Murtaza Hussain. Cork stayed on his knees, head bowed. The Lancashire players slumped, almost unable to believe they had fallen so close to the finishing line. Mark Chilton, their captain, buried his head in his hands and, in tears, admitted that "the lads are just broken".

Back at Hove the wicket was greeted with yells of triumph and a shower of champagne and beer, both inside and outside the pavilion. As the ECB car sped back towards the south coast, the celebrations, delayed for four-and-a-half hours, finally got underway.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo