Yorkshire 251 (Ballance 55, Rashid 53) and 55 for 1 lead Sussex 248 (Yardy 70, Brooks 3-55) by 58 runs

Yorkshire's competitive season began at New Road with the chestnut tree barely in leaf; now it draws not quite serenely to a close with conkers bestrewing the pavement in St Michael's Lane and the unmistakable tang of autumn in the morning air. For all that it is our summer game, cricket spreads itself generously across three seasons.

When that first ball was bowled - Sidebottom to Mitchell, no run - Yorkshire were champions and their opponents, Worcestershire, were keen to prove themselves against the best in the land. As it drifts to its end - as yet, we know not when or how - Worcestershire are relegated and Sussex need only to avoid defeat in this game at Headingley to be sure they will not join them, regardless of what Hampshire do at Trent Bridge.

The common denominators are Yorkshire's cricketers, champions in April, re-crowned kings in September after a summer littered with four-day triumphs, some of them stunningly facile. Yet Andrew Gale's cricketers have not performed like champions since winning the title and they have not been the masters of their own farmyard in this match. Indeed, Yorkshire have serious work to do if they are not to end their programme with two defeats in their last three games.

The principal reason for this is not celebratory fatigue, as it might have been as Lord's, but the keenness of a Sussex team whose competitive juices have been stirred by their peril. On the second morning of this match, for example, they took Yorkshire's last three wickets in ten balls, thus ensuring that their batsmen would not suffer the irritation of late resistance.

Then, when Yorkshire's seam attack had threatened to gang up on Ed Joyce's batsmen and bully them into craven subjection, Sussex's last five wickets added 178 runs as the bowlers' attacking lengths were met with equally aggressive strokeplay.

This counter-attack was particularly welcome, to the neutral at least, because it was led by Michael Yardy, who was playing the penultimate innings of his first-class career. Arriving in the middle with his side grimly placed on 68 for 4, Yardy watched as things got worse four balls later when Luke Wright's slightly timid push at a good ball from Liam Plunkett only nicked a catch to Alex Lees at first slip.

That left Sussex on 70 for 5 and it concluded 17.1 overs' cricket in which most of the specialist batsmen had been embarrassed by the accuracy and movement of Ryan Sidebottom and his friends Matt Machan had been caught when playing a flat-footed drives. Ed Joyce had perished when attempting curious shots somewhere between pushes and drives. Machan and Joyce had both fallen to Jack Brooks but all Yorkshire's seamers had enjoyed at least one success and their tails were up.

After lunch, though, Yardy and his partner, Ben Brown, lit their strongest flambeaux and fought fire with fire. The pair added 55 in 40 balls after the resumption until Brown, having whacked Bresnan for four and a remarkable six over cover, was caught by Sidebottom at long leg when hooking the ex-England bowler. Brown's 39 off 34 balls seems a modest contribution but it had changed the temper of the contest

Yardy had not kept pace with his colleague but there had been no mistaking his broad-beamed belligerence. Time and again he strode across his wicket in that unique slightly crab-like style and clipped the ball through mid-wicket or cut it heavens-hard to the point boundary. While he needed the luck of two Chinese cuts to fine leg off Bresnan, there was no brooking the argument that he deserved his fifty which came up off 56 balls.

Ashar Zaidi helped Yardy add 53 for the seventh wicket and by now Yorkshire's bowlers, bearded in their own lair, were less impressive, less dominant, less assured. It was Adil Rashid who removed Zaidi, leg before when playing no shot for 26, and then Magoffin fell to Plunkett first ball.

Yardy, though, buccaneered on. Having already hit five centuries against Yorkshire in his career, it was beginning to seem possible that his third fifty would be translated into a sixth hundred when he attempted another cut off Brooks but only played the ball on to his stumps. He had made 70 off 81 balls and hit 13 fours; his innings had changed the game. He received the warmest of ovations and much of the applause came from folk who were wearing Yorkshire apparel.

Encouraged by their very senior pro, Lewis Hatchett and Chris Liddle added a further 37 for the last wicket and reduced the deficit to three before Hatchett was caught by Bresnan off Adam Lyth's off-spin for 25. Then, a little shocked, perhaps, by the treatment they had encountered, Lyth and Gary Ballance took Yorkshire to 55 for 1 in 26 overs by the close. Lees had been caught and bowled for a golden duck by Chris Jordan when he played too soon at a good length ball.

The calmness of the cricket in the evening session contrasted sharply with the previous entertainment. It allowed one to reflect, before battle is rejoined tomorrow, on the fact that Yardy, like Ashwell Prince, Richard Pyrah and others are ending their playing careers this week. "Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf / How the heart feels a languid grief," wrote Dante Gabriel Rossetti in "Autumn Song".

The melancholy is more profound for the passing of a playing career than it is for the ending of a season. In April one had Edward Thomas's The Pursuit of Spring in one's pocket; now there is Keats on the bedside table. But the time for Thomas will come again. There will be no more of Yardy's crunching clips through the on side, no more of those walks across the crease, no more of his left-arm darts…

The light is failing over Headingley now. The trees are darker of leaf and mists gather in the copses towards Burley.