Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Surrey 207 and 112 for 6 (Sudharsan 31*, Prest 2-32) need another 73 runs to beat Hampshire 219 and 172 (Vince 56, Jacks 5-87)
A butterfly flapped its wings - in this case, Tom Taylor clattering the stumps of No.11 Jamie Porter at Wantage Road - and 115 miles away at the Ageas Bowl, Will Jacks pulled out of delivering the fourth ball of the 24th over to clap the travelling fans sat in the stands at square leg. Surrey were 2023 County Champions.
Essex had been bowled out for 211, the requirement of full batting points along with a win unfulfilled after losing their final five wickets on the morning of day three. It meant Surrey's own first-innings malaise of 207 would go unpunished, and yet another season of otherwise unrelenting brilliance rewarded with title number 21, and second under head coach Gareth Batty.
"When I heard those cheers, I didn't know what to do," Jacks said of that moment the Championship was confirmed. "I looked around at everyone. Foakesy was clapping but everyone was still in the same spot - I didn't know if we would come together and have a high-five and huddle. I just did a little clap and looked around and got on with it.
"I bowled a pie and the next few overs were terrible. I didn't know what to do." Jacks went on to take 5 for 87, as Hampshire were dismissed for 172 to set Surrey a target of 185 that - to judge by their stumble to 112 for 6 at the close - they don't wholly seem bothered about chasing.
"I'm out of suggestions [for the guys batting in the morning]," joked Rory Burns, now with three titles as captain. His main objective of a successful title defence, having failed to achieve that in 2019, has been ticked.
"It feels pretty special," Burns said. "We set out to go back-to-back and the way we have done that is very pleasing.
"Essex have pushed us all the way so there was pressure around this week, so it was all about winning the game this week as that was the best method to do that. To get over the line without having to finish our job is nice."
Essex were the side that toppled Surrey four years ago, and Burns admitted their disappointing sixth-place showing in that year's campaign had influenced the squad's approach this time around.
"We learned a few lessons from [winning in] 2018. The way we have played our cricket this year has been really positive. How we have taken games on and seized the initiative in big moments. We didn't want to defend it this season, we wanted to attack it. Not many teams go back-to-back so that is a feather in our cap and a really pleasing element to this one."
As far as successful title defences go, a feat they've achieved on 11 previous occasions, this was somewhat unremarkable in that it relied on errors elsewhere. Essex did push Surrey close, winning six on the bounce before their penultimate-round defeat to Hampshire. But those from south London had established ample ground between themselves and the rest in the months before. Of the many things in Surrey's bank, points was one of them.
Those in the away dressing-room embraced upon confirmation of their title, followed by chants of "Champeones!" from the stands as the players on the field got ready for the next over. Ryan Patel, who started the match in the XI before being replaced by Jamie Smith from the third innings of the match, was spotted heading into the changing room with a pre-printed flag honouring Surrey's achievement.
Only when they made it through to lunch did the players on the field embrace in the middle, as James Vince and Nick Gubbins headed off with Hampshire on 67 for 2, leading by 78, as if that even mattered anymore.
Alec Stewart, director of cricket, stepped onto the field to embrace the team, starting with Burns, and when the ground MC announced Surrey as champions, applause from all in the stands scored their walk off. By stumps, they were 112 for 6 chasing a target of 185, with a few shots making you wonder if they were (understandably) trying to finish it tonight. Either way, a night in the Ageas Bowl Hilton awaits.
If the blow of a Championship spurned led to Essex's collapse to an innings defeat at Northampton, Surrey were certainly buoyed by their fresh crown, emerging to take Hampshire's last eight first-innings wickets for the addition with 105. The pitch, which has turned throughout, seemingly went into overdrive as Jacks claimed a first five-wicket bag for Surrey, adding to the maiden first-class haul of 6 for 161 on Test debut against Pakistan in Rawalpindi last December.
It was particularly quirky given that Jacks had come in from ODI duty to replace Tom Lawes on day two, who had taken 5 for 27 in the first innings. The pair say they are claiming the 10-wicket match haul together. Jacks even adopted a white-ball approach for a breezy second innings cameo of 24 from 16, striking two sixes and two fours before falling as the fifth wicket. Sai Sudharsan remains unbeaten on 31, with Jordan Clark.
The booze had been flowing shortly before bad light ended the day at 5.26pm. Later, Kemar Roach knocked up his favourite concoction - Guinness, sweet milk and cinnamon. Bubbles weren't too far off. Whether the remaining 73 runs get knocked off is academic. Soon after stumps, those not involved in the travelling group of players and staff, such as Test vice-captain Ollie Pope (recovering from a shoulder dislocated during the Ashes), Surrey chief executive Steve Elworthy and an assortment of friends and family had made their way into the away dressing-room. Even actor Rory Kinnear, he of the Daniel Craig run of James Bond films, joined them.
This has been a real team effort, of old, new and overseas. As many as 19 players have been used across the 14 matches, nine of whom are academy graduates. Moreover, they have contended throughout with absences at the Indian Premier League and England duty. Even here, having welcomed back Smith and Jacks from the ODI series against Ireland, they are without Sam Curran and Gus Atkinson, who headed to India on Wednesday evening for the 50-over World Cup.
They were ruthless when they needed to be, with four of their eight wins to date coming inside three days. When they were pushed into dark corners, they emerged gloriously into the light, notably after being skittled for 145 against Kent in their first innings back after the first Championship break, then chased down 501 for the loss of just five to win. And even that carried an air of inevitability.
Over the last two years, they have suffered two defeats in 27 matches. The first - the last match of the 2022 season at Lancashire - was after a week (and then some) of revelry having sewn up the title a round early. It may well be three in 28 by tomorrow for the same reasons.
There's no better reason for losing a match than having completed a gruelling, six-month-long marathon with time to spare and marking it accordingly. Imagine how good you have to be to do that twice?
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