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Surrey move step closer to title as Northants go down

Defending champions made to follow on by bottom side but chalk up unbroken opening stand in response

Rory Burns works to the leg side, Surrey vs Hampshire, Kia Oval, County Championship, April 14, 2023

Rory Burns dug in to ensure Surrey would get the points for a draw  •  Getty Images

Surrey 185 (Overton 51, White 4-45) and 142 for 0 (Burns 71*, Sibley 67*) drew with Northamptonshire 357 (Nair 147, Taylor 66)
Northamptonshire's relegation from Division One has been confirmed mathematically after Surrey and the weather prevented them from capping off perhaps their most impressive display of the season. That it came in their 13th match of 14 tells a clear story of a team consistently short, with just one victory among eight defeats.
The performance over these four days only adds to the frustration. Head coach John Sadler spoke of the pride that Northants "dominated the best team in the country". At the same time, there was an appreciation losing five of their first seven matches left them a mountain to climb.
"We are of course very disappointed to be relegated," Sadler said. "We had high hopes at the start of the season but we simply did not play good enough cricket in the first half of the summer."
Such was the pressure Surrey were under, especially when they were asked to follow on after their first innings came to an abrupt end on Friday morning for 187, giving up a first innings lead of 172, skipper Rory Burns took heart from the way his charges "had to scrap for a draw".
Burns and Dom Sibley killed hope of a Northants victory with an unbeaten stand of 142 in the follow-on innings. And the value of their fight came to pass just before 6pm, when they cheered like Hampshire ultras when Ben Brown struck the winning runs at Chelmsford.
It means Surrey travel to the Ageas Bowl for the final round of the County Championship leading second-place Essex by 20 points. They require just five for back-to-back titles and will be reinforced by the returns of Jamie Smith and Will Jacks from day two of their match with Hampshire following the completion of England's ODI series against Ireland on Tuesday in Bristol. It is also possible one or both could be released on Monday to play the full four days.
"Definitely [it would be great to have them back]," Burns said. "Jamie won batsman of the year at the club awards last night and his call-up is testament to the way he's playing at the minute. We will welcome them back with open arms if we can."
Surrey began day four 199 behind in their first innings, with Ben Foakes and Jamie Overton resuming a stand that had doubled the score since coming together at 79 for 6. With the noises from Chelmsford indicating Hampshire would be game for a contrived finish with title-chasing Essex - not required in the end as the situation progressed organically - the suggestion at the Kia Oval was the hosts would be happy to have a chat with Northants skipper Luke Procter once they had passed the follow-on target.
That conversation did not come to pass. Within 11.2 overs of the restart, the final four wickets were taken for just 27. Jack White squared up Overton for a catch to Karun Nair at a wide first slip, with similar movement accounting for Dan Worrall at the start of the seamer's next over.
Nair was again active in the cordon after Tom Lawes was turned inside-out by Ben Sanderson. Then began a peculiarly slow 10th-wicket stand between Foakes and Kemar Roach, which was ended when the former was trapped by Tom Taylor.
With the benefit of hindsight, maybe Northants batting on instead of enforcing and offering a carrot of a chase might have produced a different result, at least more opportunity. Having taken one result out of the game, Burns and Sibley could drain any and all of the momentum.
They dead-batted at first, particularly Sibley, who had 0 off 19 when edging a chance to Hasan Azad, who could not pull off a catch diving to his left. Burns also survived a close lbw shout on 12, with Surrey trailing by 147. Both chances, off the bowling of Sanderson, were pretty much as good as it got.
The openers went on to score with more purpose, Burns leading the shift into third gear with a tucked boundary through midwicket that brought up the fifty in 34.2 overs, later bringing up his own half-century from 148 deliveries.
By tea, the deficit was 81, hopes of Northants' great escape well and truly gone. The afternoon session brought with it a procession of part-time spin, which Sibley used to bring up 53 from 158 deliveries. The rain that had blighted the first three days was welcome by the time it arrived at 4.15pm.
Surrey escape with their dignity intact, now a little closer to another County Championship win. Northants, meanwhile, have finally been put out of their misery.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo