Following the completion of this week’s fixtures it can be now assumed with some conviction that the Championship trophy will reside in one of four locations come late September - even accounting for the topsy-turvy nature of the 2014 season that represents significant progress in cracking the title equation.
Victory over Lancashire saw Nottinghamshire replace Yorkshire at the summit - the third week in succession those two have exchanged the lead - while a first win in four allowed Somerset to revitalise their hopes of a first ever title.
The final side on the landscape are Warwickshire, who are mounting a more than threating tilt with the final furlongs on the horizon.
The top four are seperated by just 20 points, however there is potential for that gap to be squeezed yet further prior to the commencement of the mid-season break. Next week represents the final round of games prior to that break and with the top two not in action, both Yorkshire and Warwickshire have the opportunity to utilise their respective games in hand and enter the rest period top of the pile.
If Nottinghamshire do go on to win the title, they may look back on their one-wicket victory over Lancashire as a seminal moment.
In such a closely congested season, the title is likely to be won by small margins and the margins couldn’t have been any smaller in their pursuit of 170 at Liverpool.
At 119 for seven Nottinghamshire were teetering. Their revered top order were all back in the hutch and the 51 remaining runs might have appeared more like 151. However Chris Read, supported by the tail - Luke Fletcher worthy of special acclaim for his part in a pivotal 44-run partnership with the skipper - held his nerve to complete a hugely tense success.
That wasn’t Fletcher’s only telling contribution on a dramatic day, with the seamer's three for 33 ensuring Lancashire’s lower order caused minimal damage. Arguably though the bowling performance of that final day was delivered by Harry Gurney who recorded four wickets in a supreme spell that saw Lancashire slip from a threatening 99 for two to 140 for six - a position which left them just 104 runs in front.
Analysis of Somerset’s title credentials over the last month has always been delivered with the caveat that they still had two remaining fixtures against Northamptonshire which are as close to a banker as you could ever envisage, or so they thought.
The opening three days developed in all-too-familiar fashion for Northants as Somerset dictated proceedings, so much so that heading into the last day’s play Marcus Trescothick’s side required just five scalps for victory while Northnats were a monumental 296 shy of their target.
At first Northants’ early resistance seemed merely as a source of frustration and when Craig Overton clinched the eighth wicket with Northants still needing a seemingly irrelevant 156 to win, it seemed only a matter of time. That blow saw David Willey join Andrew Hall at the crease – granted no ordinary number 10 but then neither is Hall your typical number nine – and the pair combined for a century stand that saw tetchiness levels reach fever pitch.
Thankfully for Somerset the hero they were in dire need of arrived in the form of Lewis Gregory, who clinched the scalp of Willey which was the all-rounder’s 11th victim of a superb match.
Hall followed only five balls later as Somerset ensured their title aspirations remained intact - albeit with more than a frayed nerve or two.
What this fixture does prove is that those anticipating their remaining fixtures with Northants to be mere walkovers, might want to ensure they take nothing for granted against the basement club.
Round 15 Results
Nottinghamshire beat Lancashire by one wicket
Somerset beat Northamptonshire by 52 runs
Warwickshire beat Durham by an innings & 188 runs
Derbyshire beat Gloucestershire by six wickets
Essex beat Hampshire by two wickets
Worcestershire beat Leicestershire by 204 runs
As productive as the result at Liverpool might turn out to be for Nottinghamshire, it has the potential to be a critical blow to Lancashire’s survival hopes in equal proportion.
That painstaking defeat leaves Lancashire precariously placed 11 points shy of safety and crucially having played a game more than the two sides within reach.
This latest defeat is another in which the Red Rose will rue a disappointing first innings showing with the bat, as a total of 225 allowed Notts to build a 31-run advantage – the 10th time in 12 games Lancashire have conceded a deficit.
Lancashire’s problems are far from terminal. They are still to face relegations rivals Durham and Sussex but they are likely to need two wins from four games and that is a tall order accounting for both their plight and that they have yet to beat anyone aside from Northants.
Two fixtures ago it appeared that Warwickshire, tipped by many for a genuine title assault, were destined for a season of meandering in mid-table.
Back to back victories have however seen them haul themselves firmly back into the mix. The recent rear-guard success over Notts was followed up by a resounding win at Durham this week.
Warwickshire’s batting has been a persistent thorn throughout this campaign and while they are never likely to rival Notts or Yorkshire in this regard, there are signs of the tide turning. The 472 achieved this week represetned their second highest score of the season.
Their upturn in fortunes is in no small part down to the emergence of Sam Hain and Jonathan Trott beginning to rediscover his form, the former belittling his years to score an unbeaten century in that 472 and the latter scoring an encouraging 76.
At the same time Warwickshire’s formidable bowlers showcased signs that they could be peaking at the right time, ruthlessly dispatching Durham twice inside 105 overs. Keith Barker particularly enjoyed the trip to Chester-le-Street, with his return of eight for 66 disparaging a previously under par season.
Having been on the periphery for so long Warwickshire are suddenly the division’s form side and might just be making their move at the right time. Further to that they are the only side in the title race to boast a wicket-taking spinner – Jeetan Patel taking his seasonal tally to 38 courtesy of second innings five-wicket haul.
In contrast to Warwickshire, two games ago Durham were eyeing up an unlikely title push having recorded successive wins over Lancashire and Sussex – incidentally their only two victories of the campaign.
Round 16 Fixtures
Sussex v Warwickshire
Yorkshire v Middlesex
Derbyshire v Glamorgan
Gloucestershire v Worcestershire
Surrey v Kent
A draw against Yorkshire last week dampened those aspirations, while their Warwickshire mauling leaves Paul Collingwood’s side lodged in a relegation scrap.
There is no doubt Durham are somewhat short of the animal that recorded a remarkable 10 victories in 2013 – Graham Onions’ injury problems and Ben Stokes’ international commitments significant factors in their demise.
The most concerning aspect of this week’s showing will undoubtedly be their batsmen’s capitulation – scores of 171 and 113 signifying two of their three lowest through the season to date. Heightening the alarm is that up until this point Durham have in contrast to 2013 been propped up by their batting, should this be a sign of things to come their Division One status could be under serious threat, even accounting for Graham Onions return with the ball.
Surrey’s recent resurgence has meant that long-time pace-setters Worcestershire and Hampshire are finally being asked serious questions of their promotion credentials.
Saeed Ajmal has helped ensure Worcestershire remain rock solid, however Hampshire are showing signs of breaking up under pressure, with Essex this week dealing them an untimely first defeat of the campaign.
Last week Jimmy Adams' side grappled out a draw having been under the pump for much of their fixture with Gloucestershire, however this time around there was to be no escape.
Hampshire were up against it from an opening session which saw them slip to 32 for five and while they did recover to an admirable 246 – thanks in no small part to Adam Wheater’s 109 – it was still a sub-par total on a pitch that would become increasingly conducive to spin.
The batting would let them down once again on the final day as Hampshire capitulated from 96 for one to 171 all out, which left the home side requiring just 133 for victory – albeit in testing conditions.
In spite of a few nervy moments Essex squeezed home with two wickets intact, to leave an out-of-sorts of Hampshire worryingly glancing over their shoulder. Without bowling spearhead Kyle Abbott there was an anticipation their bowling would lose its spark, however the stuttering of their heralded batsmen is a more out of the blue concern; Michael Carberry and Adams’ lack of form is now being exposed by James Vince suffering an inevitable dip.
With Hampshire’s defeat Worcestershire are now the Championship’s only remaining unbeaten side and further to that, victory over Leicestershire means no other side can boast more than their six wins.
Ajmal will again grab the headlines – seven wickets here meaning he departs with 63 in just nine games - but truth is there is plenty more to Daryl Mitchell’s side beyond the Pakistani’s box of tricks.
A pivotal undercurrent to Ajmal’s magic has been the impressive showing of Worcestershire’s plethora of young players, with Tom Kohler-Cadmore and Joe Leech playing critical roles in Leicestershire’s demise – the former falling agonising just short of a maiden century whilst the latter contributed six wickets and a swashbuckling 76 that firmly took the game from the visitors.
Accounting for the wave of momentum Surrey are currently riding and Ajmal’s impending departure, this was a critical victory for Worcestershire considering it keeps The Oval outfit at arm’s length.
With a healthy 27-point gap and a fixture in the bank on Surrey, it would take a substantial capitulation for Worcestershire to fall at this stage – something which their cohesive and under credited squad has shown little hint of exercising.
It is hard to envisage that only four fixtures ago Essex were dealt a mauling by Hampshire which indicated there was a monumental gulf between the sides, a result that somewhat belied the pre-season forecasters who hinted both carried equally realistic promotion aspirations prior to the season’s commencing.
Since that pounding though James Foster’s side have presented a distinctly different proposition, collecting two wins in three fixtures including this week’s successful revenge mission over Hampshire.
The credit for avenging that earlier mentioned mauling in small part falls on the shoulders of Ravi Bopara – the England man showing all his class by following up a first innings 79 with an unbeaten second innings 40 that guided Essex over the line amidst testing conditions.
Ultimately Essex’s charge may have unfortunately materialised a fixture or so too late – batting capitulations, a bowling injury crisis and a poor hand with regards to the weather all contributors to a run of eight winless games – however they now at least have a glimmer and that looked inconceivable a month ago.
It is no lie to suggest Graeme Welch’s maiden campaign as Derbyshire coach has been nothing short of miserable, yet there was zero evidence of those struggles at Cheltenham where Derbyshire produced by some distance their best display of a largely torrid campaign.
The return to form of Tony Palladino has without doubt provided much-needed assistance to Mark Footitt, who has for much of the campaign been fighting a lone battle, however it was the display of Derbyshire’s maligned batsmen that will most enthuse Welch.
Of particular satisfaction will be that all of Derbyshire’s top five surpassed 50 at least once in the match, Billy Godleman recording his first half-century of an exasperating season.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, especially in a division as inconsistent as this but Welch will hope that just maybe his methods are starting to take effect.
© Cricket World 2014