Mushtaq puts Sussex in command
Kent 257 and 144 for 3 (Key 84) lead Sussex 348 (Ahmed 90*, Patel 5-81) by 53 runs
A sterling performance from Mushtaq Ahmed put Sussex in a strong position after two days of their season-end match against Kent at Hove. For once, it was his heroics with the bat and not the ball which kept a good-sized crowd entertained. His unbeaten 90, equalling his career-best score, ensured that Sussex took a first-innings lead when at lunch it had seemed that they would surrender that to Kent.
The news from Southampton, where Hampshire were scoring at will against Nottinghamshire, meant that this game appeared to have become a battle for third place with the runners-up slot fast disappearing. That was certainly the view among the Sussex faithful, who spent their lunch muttering unhappily over the champions' abject performance 30 miles to the west.
What they had seen in the morning had not put them in a good frame of mind. Although Michael Yardy and Tim Ambrose had got Sussex off to a brisk start, the introduction of Min Patel at the Sea End turned the game on its head. With the last ball of his first over he bowled Yardy, attempting an over ambitious drive, for 43 - and in the next over, Ambrose was trapped leg-before by Neil Dexter for 44, as he tried to give himself room to play to leg.
Matt Prior had by then holed out to deep midwicket for a listless 4, and it appeared Chris Adams had the measure of Patel, but he became his fourth wicket - he too was deceived by the spin and bowled. The unimpressive Martin Saggers came back on - on his showing today it seemed incredible that he was an England player less than two years ago - but for just one over, as Robin Martin-Jenkins hammered him for three crisp off-side boundaries. On the stroke of lunch, however, Martin-Jenkins was neatly stumped by Niall O'Brien to leave Sussex wobbling on 192 for 7.
At the interval, Sussex made a presentation to the umpires, Merv Kitchen and Alan Whitehead, both of whom retire at the end of the week. Three balls after lunch, the county might have been considering asking Kitchen for his present back: he adjudged Rana Naved-ul-Hasan caught bat-pad off Patel even though it looked as if the ball had missed the bat by some way.
Enter Mushtaq. He was his typical idiosyncratic self from the off, using his feet to Patel from the second ball he faced, mixing lofted drives with crisp strokes and subtle flicks. The only time he looked at all ill at ease was when Luke Wright, who contributed 37 to a ninth-wicket stand of 82, almost lapped him in demanding a third run. Wright too played some cracking strokes, and even though he became Patel's fifth victim, Mushtaq and James Kirtley continued to make hay against a tired attack.
Neither was unduly troubled until Kent took the new ball, and the brisk Robbie Joseph wasted no time in removing Kirtley, ending the last-wicket partnership of 74 and leaving a clearly disappointed Mushtaq stranded.
After tea, Kent started with far more purpose than they had yesterday, surviving the loss of David Fulton - Naved-ul-Hasan's 53rd wicket for Sussex in only his ninth game - to push on with relative ease in the evening sunshine. But as the shadows lengthened and the autumnal chill began to bite, Sussex struck two vital blows. The second, the removal of Robert Key for 84 off the final ball of the day, meant that they start the third day very much in the driving seat in which to force the win that will guarantee them third place.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo