Twin tons secure Worcestershire's promotion
Worcestershire 201 for 9 dec. and 306 for 6 beat Sussex 237 and 264 for 4 dec. by four wickets
Worcestershire will be playing Division One cricket next season after a remarkable last day run-chase snatched an unlikely promotion. But it was not only the worn pitch and demanding target that they defied.
It was also the departure of five of their senior players and a crippling financial problem that has forced them to cut their cricket budget to the bone. Their promotion is little short of miraculous. Just five weeks ago to the day, Vikram Solanki resigned the Worcestershire captaincy after a crushing defeat at Colwyn Bay. At the time, Worcestershire were still 37 points adrift of Glamorgan. Few even considered the possibility of promotion.
But, since Daryl Mitchell assumed the captaincy, Worcestershire have enjoyed remarkable success. They have won three and drawn one of their four championship games under his command (it's seven wins out of nine in all competitions) and, in all, have won four of their last six games.
Some, particularly Glamorgan supporters, may feel aggrieved by this result. Certainly, Worcestershire served up some declaration bowling to gift Sussex 106 runs in nine overs and set-up the declaration.
Yet the eventual requirement - 301 from 70 overs - still favoured Sussex. The pitch, twice used this season, offered variable bounce to the seamers and generous turn to the spinners. Worcestershire shouldn't really have even gone close.
But there is a fearlessness in youth. And, in the form of Moeen Ali and James Cameron, Worcestershire have two talented, young cricketers who seem to thrive in such moments. It bodes well for their future and the future of their team.
Both men scored centuries. They took the attack the Sussex bowling with such alacrity, that they scored 200 in the afternoon session and paved the way to victory with almost 15 overs in hand. An anxious wait followed to see whether Glamorgan could engineer a victory over Derbyshire but, when the result came through, it precipitated rapturous celebrations at New Road. Thoroughly deserved they were, too.
It was surely fitting that it was two young cricketers who should have set up this victory. Worcestershire's success this season has, largely, been built upon the excellence of youngsters such as Moeen, Alexei Kervezee, Richard Jones and Daryl Mitchell, who at 26, is hardly a veteran.
Moeen batted gloriously. At times, none of the bowlers had any answer to his strokeplay as he displayed a range of stoke and sweetness of timing that was more than a little reminiscent of David Gower. Jimmy Anyon for punished for four consecutive boundaries, while Luke Wright was hit out of the attack with something approaching disdain. Monty Panesar, despite conditions he should have savoured, was driven to distraction and cut to ribbons. Moeen scored 99 between lunch and tea and reached his century from just 106 deliveries.
The comparison to Gower isn't entirely positive, of course. It also means that Moeen is sometimes loose outside off stump and there were moments, early in his innings, when he was fortunate to survive. He escaped edges through the slips on 23 and 26 and, had Ben Brown at short-leg responded more quickly, might also have been caught on 54.
But there's substance behind the style. Moeen finishes this campaign as Worcestershire's leading run-scorer in the championship and T20 and surely faces a winter with the England Lions.
Cameron was impressive, too. This, his maiden first-class century, also came in his first game as an opening batsman. He looked secure against all bowling and, in skipping down the pitch to deposit Panesar for two straight sixes in the same over, demonstrated pleasing self-confidence and a wide range of strokes.
Sussex weren't at their best. Maybe it was the fact that they were already assured of promotion, or may it was the after effects of the previous night's celebrations, but both with the ball and in the field, they appeared jaded. Panesar finished with 52 championship wickets but, on this surface, will be disappointed both not to have taken more and to have conceded more than four an over.
Worcestershire stuttered with the winning line within grasp, but they were not to be denied. Their four-wicket victory was their seventh championship success of the season and means, one year after being relegated without a win to their name, they are back up among the best sides in the land. The fact that six of the nine Division One sides are the owners of Test grounds, speaks volumes about the uneven battle that lies ahead.
Afterwards Worcestershire's director of cricket, Steve Rhodes, credited his side's spirit for their success. Suggesting that the departure of the bigger name players may not have done the club any harm in the long run, Rhodes also warned supporters not to expect any recruitment this winter.
"At the start of the season, everyone was tipping us to finish bottom," Rhodes said. "So this is a great effort and I'm very proud of them. A good spirit in the dressing room is massive. It's your 12th man. We've had hurdles [to that] in the past. But now we have lads who enjoy eachothers' company and enjoy playing together. It's like Shakib said: everyone here comes in willing to work and determined to improve.
"It's important that people understand that next season is about consolidation. It will be very tough, but if we can stay up then perhaps there will be a bit more money around in a year or two.
"There's no funding. Unfortunately we will not have the finances to improve the squad in any way. We should be able to afford an overseas player, but it won't be a top-notcher. [In Division One] we'll have to rely on the guys who got us here."
It is true that challenges lie ahead. Worcestershire's record - they have been promoted three times and relegated twice in the last five years - suggests that life in Division One may prove desperately tough, while the club's financial position remains precarious. Survival remains the goal.
But such worries can wait. For now, Worcestershire deserve their celebrations. In the circumstances, their promotion is an excellent achievement and their team contains a couple of players with very bright futures.