County Championship finale: who will prevail in four-way title fight?

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<span>Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

David Gower was at Scarborough this month, when Yorkshire thrashed Somerset to end, yet again, their hopes of winning the County Championship. He was giving an after-dinner speech on the second day – the last as it turned out – and managed to escape the handshakes and small talk for long enough to squeeze in some time to sit in a deckchair and let it all soak in, watching some of the younger players have their day in the sun.

Gower was not always known for his dedication to the county grind but – with one round left to decide the winners, and four clubs in hot pursuit – his old club Hampshire are top of the table and in with a shout of their first Championship title since 1973.

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Gower, a friend of Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman who saved them from insolvency, is hopeful for the club and for his old friend: “I’d like to see Rod’s ambition recognised. It has come at some personal cost to him to put his money where his mouth is.”

Hampshire (58.5pts) have zipped up to Liverpool where they will take on third-placed Lancashire (54.5) on Tuesday while second-placed Warwickshire (55) have the plum game against Somerset, beaten in the Blast final on Saturday, and falling apart at the seams since the late-summer restart of the Championship.

Fourth-placed Nottinghamshire (52) entertain out-of-the-running Yorkshire, at Trent Bridge. Theirs would be an unlikely title, but quite the story after going almost three years without a Championship win until they thrashed Derbyshire in a Stuart Broad-inspired triumph in May.

Yorkshire can still clinch second and qualify for the Bob Willis Trophy final that starts on 28 September should they win and results in the other games fall their way.

Most England players are unavailable to their counties, with Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, Joe Root and David Willey sitting on the bench for Yorkshire’s game. Not even the temptation of a first possible Lancashire Championship in 10 years is enough to tempt a weary Jimmy Anderson to pull on those bowling boots again and Liam Livingstone is in white-ball mode for the Rajasthan Royals. But Chris Woakes, whose past year has been lived in a constant state of cricket interruptus, and who inspired Warwickshire to victory with six wickets against Yorkshire in the last round, will play at Edgbaston.

As at Edgbaston, the shadows are lengthening on this year&#x002019;s county cricket season.
As at Edgbaston, the shadows are lengthening on this year’s county cricket season. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Warwickshire last took the Championship in 2012, having won in 2004, a strange season, with the champions winning just five games, and their captain, Nick Knight, saying: “I’m the first to admit that Kent or Surrey should have won it, but they weren’t good enough to win it. So we won it.”

Gower, despite his champagne reputation, has a soft spot for the county game and is worried by the constant messing with the structure. “You cannot get anywhere without playing county cricket,” he says. “Four-day cricket is a vital part of the system.

“There were days, I’ll admit, that I wasn’t switched on, but days when I was, and I loved it. If I was ever not switched on it was more fatigue than anything to do with the product, with games squeezed between Test matches, sometimes driving across the country for a one-day game. It took it out of you.

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“I still value four-day county cricket and I dearly hope the schedules, which are now ridiculously crowded and totally bonkers, make time for it.

“Two divisions is probably slightly better than the alternative, but the more important point is trying to play enough four-day cricket at the right time of the year. At the moment you’ve got a motorway pile up in the middle of the summer, it is like trying to get around Birmingham on a Friday afternoon.”

As it is, excluding the four runners for the title, the rest of the clubs go into the final round not entirely sure what they are playing for. Points? Money? Promotion?

There is due to be an end-of-season review by the county chief executives this month, before a vote is taken on the structure for 2022 – a summer the England and Wales Cricket Board still fears could be disrupted by Covid. Up for discussion is a Championship to be played during the Hundred, a plate to reward the lower divisions of a conference competition or a return to two divisions – a scenario that could mean possible winners Nottinghamshire, who were relegated at the end of the 2019 season, dumped back down into the Second Division.

There are goodbyes to be said, too: to Surrey’s stalwart Rikki Clarke, a veteran of two Tests and a handful of one-day internationals, but more memorably an indefatigable servant of county cricket; to Essex’s talisman Ryan ten Doeschate, who led the club to two County Championship titles, in 2017 and 2019; and to (briefly) the Nottinghamshire, but mostly the Somerset, batting all‑rounder Peter Trego, virtuoso of 22 seasons in the county game.

Gower, who hung up his cricket boots in 1993, and lost his broadcasting gig with Sky in 2019, hasn’t forgotten the good times with Leicestershire or Hampshire, but “it is not like me to wander back to old things, most of my thoughts are to what is going forward”. He has done broadcast work for the Pakistan Super League, is an ambassador for last Saturday’s Voneus Village Cup at Lord’s but desperately misses his commentary stints on Sky and knocked on the door of TMS to no avail. He knows, more than any, that sometimes your race is run.

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe and get the full edition, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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