Worcestershire 335 and 157 for 3 (Mitchell 68) lead Durham 208 (Leach 3-30) by 284 runs
Joe Leach's walk back to his bowling mark is a fine enough thing, yet even his fondest relations do not judge it worthy of applause. We may live in a hyperbolic age but putting one foot in front of another does not justify hysterical ovations and hats-in-the-air jubilee. No, the reason the spectators at New Road broke into spontaneous clapping at 10.42am on this hazy late September morning was because, some 70 miles away, Northamptonshire's Ben Sanderson had been bowled by Leicestershire's Dieter Klein. One doubts this dismissal prompted unalloyed rejoicing even among the heaving thousands on the Grace Road terraces but at New Road it confirmed Worcestershire's promotion to Division One of the County Championship.
Some might have thought the rest of the day's cricket would be wrapped in prolonged celebration and unreality following the achievement of the goal set by the Worcestershire coach, Steve Rhodes, last November. Yet it was not so. For one thing, Worcestershire want to go up as champions and that is not quite settled yet. Nottinghamshire may overtake them although their priority will be the achievement of a draw and their own promotion. Nevertheless, despite the entreaties of the lunchtime television people, Bradford-born Rhodes did not give any interviews until the end of the third day's play. "I have a cricket match to win," he said. You can take the lad out of Yorkshire etc, etc.
Moreover, Durham's cricketers have never been the drinks waiters at someone else's party. It was entirely in character when Michael Richardson and Graham Onions added 30 for the last wicket to save the follow-on. Other teams might have folded on this third day but Onions does not want his last game for his beloved county to end in defeat. He even protested fairly plainly when Steve Gale judged him caught at second slip off the glove for 13. That ended Durham's innings and it gave Worcestershire a 127-run lead. That had been extended to 284 for the loss of three wickets when bad light and rain arrived in mid-afternoon and only relented briefly. The destination of the title will therefore hang on the final day of the season here and even some home supporters were secretly pleased when Richardson pushed that crucial single. Every September afternoon is treasured.
But this day had already offered other touching ovations and one of the warmest was for Leach and his players when they returned to the pavilion at the end of the Durham innings. The reason for this prolonged applause was very clear. Leach's one wicket in the morning had taken his own total to 66 in the Championship but in addition to his impressive fast-medium bowling, he has been a fine skipper of some good young players. For example, Ed Barnard's removal of Mark Wood and Chris Rushworth on the third morning took his own tally of wickets to 45, this in addition to nearly 600 runs. The hope is that cricketers like Barnard and George Rhodes will not be overawed by first division cricket. Worcestershire have won promotion five times in 12 season; all but one of those successes was followed by immediate relegation.
Yet the most wholehearted applause of the day was reserved for Tom Fell, who returned to the pavilion having made 47, his highest score of what has been a thoroughly miserable season. Fell had offered signs that he was returning to something on the outskirts of form before he was leg-before when attempting to play Ryan Pringle's sharply-spun offbreak to leg. It was a limp shot but that did not affect the spectators' regard. Fell is one of the ten players in this Worcestershire side who came up through the county's Academy and has recovered from serious illness. Even a half-century from him would have made the crowd's day even more special.
The evening session ambled towards a grey conclusion. Four overs were bowled but conditions were thoroughly miserable and Paul Collingwood saw no virtue in bowling his spinners to prolong the play. By the close it was clear that if Nottinghamshire avoid defeat at Hove they will be promoted while if Worcestershire avoid defeat here they will be champions. Any declaration offered by Leach will probably be tough in the extreme. That, though, may not matter to the home supporters at New Road. They hope simply that some sun will shine on a trophy their team has not won since 2003. And that will be it for another season. "Even the sun sets in paradise," croons Maroon 5's Adam Levine. Perhaps so, but even the kaleidoscope of copper beeches, chestnuts and limes on the banks of the Severn does not make it easier to apprehend.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications