Three-way title race sets up thrilling finish
Three weeks ago the chances of a thrilling conclusion to the County Championship looked highly unlikely. Nottinghamshire were perched comfortably ahead of their nearest rivals, but their form has disintegrated over the last two matches to such an extent that, even though they still have a two-point lead over Somerset and a seven-point cushion to Yorkshire, to many they are now the outsiders.
The final round of matches pits Nottinghamshire against Lancashire at Old Trafford, Somerset travel to Durham and Yorkshire host Kent at Headingley. It's a northern finale, which means the weather could well play its part, while the ECB would do well to have the trophy in a high-speed car. That just adds to the potential drama. It's a finish to match 2008 when Durham surged to their first title - something Somerset are looking to match this year - after Nottinghamshire bottled their chance. Chris Read's team are clearly susceptible to vertigo.
Even victory for Nottinghamshire may not be enough. Anything less than 22 points from their match brings Somerset and Yorkshire into the equation if they gain a maximum 24 points. Given the batting form of Nottinghamshire, passing 300 at Old Trafford to gain three bonus points may be too much, especially if the surface aids spin which is a strength of Lancashire's and not of the visitors. Nottinghamshire, though, have been boosted by the release of Ryan Sidebottom from England duty.
"The standings mean that every point counts and it's very important that we take as many bonus points as we can," Mick Newell, the Nottinghamshire coach, said. "We can't influence what happens elsewhere but we have control of our own performance."
Both the challengers enter the last set of games on the high of impressive victories last week; Yorkshire beat Nottinghamshire after bowling them out for 59 in the first innings at Trent Bridge and Somerset crushed Lancashire by nine wickets on home soil. Somerset will have to win away to secure their first Championship title, but Chester-le-Street is usually a result wicket and Durham only have the bare bones of a bowling attack.
Marcus Trescothick has had another prolific season and Somerset's batting is overflowing with talent. Craig Kieswetter isn't wanted by England, James Hildreth is pushing for higher honours and Jos Buttler already looks like an international cricketer of the near future. The pace bowling is workmanlike, led by Charl Willoughby, but even though it's September the trump card could be Murali Kartik.
Yorkshire, with their young team, were many people's tips for relegation this year but have defied the odds with impressive style. In Andrew Gale they have a strong captain, Adam Lyth is a future England batsman and Jonathan Bairstow a high-quality keeper. Meanwhile, Oliver Hannon-Dalby's emergence has helped cover for the absence of Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad with England and Tino Best's disappearance.
An advantage for Yorkshire in pursuit of a positive result is that Kent are equally desperate to win to maintain any chance of staying in Division One unless, or until, Hampshire secure the required points against Warwickshire to condemn Kent to the drop. So long as there is a chance of staying up Robert Key, Kent's captain, will have to chase victory at all costs, which will keep Yorkshire in the match.
One of the teams coming up to the top division is already known after Sussex's expected return, but the second promotion slot is up for grabs with Worcestershire having a chance of overtaking Glamorgan, which would be a remarkable story given Steve Rhodes' meagre resources. Leicestershire, with problems of their own, retain an outside chance but need huge favours from the other two sides. While that race will be interesting, it's the sides vying for the £500,000 main prize that will take top billing.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo