Sussex 370 (Salt 64) and 74 for 2 (Salt 30*, van Zyl 30*) beat Gloucestershire 200 (Bracey 61) and 243 (Dent 72) by eight wickets
For some weeks one contest in the final round of Championship matches has leapt from the fixture list: Somerset entertain Essex at Taunton in an anticipated showdown for the First Division title. But it may well be that an alternative West Country game compels equal attention. The meeting of Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire is a potential play-off for promotion from the second tier.
Three counties will go up this summer and only one come down as the ECB switch from an eight to a ten-team first division from 2020. The consequence is that more candidates are still in the frame to be elevated. Even with Lancashire guaranteed one slot - four more points will mean they go up as champions - as many as five counties are realistically contesting places two and three.
Victory for Sussex at Nevil Road enabled them to climb a place to fifth, now 11 points behind Gloucestershire, who duly slipped from second to third. Northamptonshire moved above them, and are 25 points above Glamorgan, sixth. Things are that tight. The remaining games are:
Northamptonshire (161 points): Durham (Northampton) and Gloucestershire (Bristol)
Gloucestershire (156): Worcestershire (Worcester) and Northamptonshire (Bristol)
Durham (147): Northamptonshire (Durham) and Glamorgan (Chester-le-Street)
Sussex (145): Derbyshire (Derby) and Worcestershire (Hove)
Glamorgan (136): Leicestershire (Cardiff) and Durham (Chester-le-Street)
For the first time in two months, momentum will become a factor. Between mid-July and the latest set of matches, all bar Gloucestershire and Worcestershire played only a single Championship match. Now, they have just a two-day break before the penultimate round, with a three-day gap then before the last. Form, along with fitness and stamina, are now critical.
So, after a run of three losses in mid-season, Sussex are coming good again just in time. Jason Gillespie, the head coach, said: "There are always tough challenges at Bristol, and Gloucestershire are a strong side, but we are scoring runs again and winning. When we had that blip we were poor, especially with the bat. It sounds a simple explanation for what has happened, but it's true."
Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire have signed overseas players specifically for the last three weeks, Shannon Gabriel and Doug Bracewell respectively. Interestingly, Northants turned to Bracewell, who has played for the club before, only after failing to secure Gabriel's West Indies new-ball partner, Kemar Roach. Both counties want that something extra to make a difference.
It backfired for Gloucester as Gabriel conceded 121 runs from 20 wicketless overs in the Sussex first innings and did not bowl in the second, when his new team-mates rushed through to get their over-rate back on schedule and avoid a points deduction. Gabriel did not take the field with Richard Dawson, the head coach, suggesting that the bowler was "a bit under the weather".
Sport is not short of cases where a star name is drafted into a side to the detriment of team equilibrium. Faustino Asprilla's ill-fated signing for Newcastle United in 1996 is the prime example. But Dawson offered a sympathetic view. "He steps off a plane, everyone has expectations and obviously he wants to do well," he said. "It is one of those things. He had pace and he bowled balls that went past the outside edge and troubled the batsmen."
Gillespie confirmed that Sussex will not be in the market for overseas help, and it would be surprising if England allow Jofra Archer to play for them in their final game, against Worcestershire at Hove. Gillespie did reveal, however, that Archer wanted to appear for Sussex in their Blast quarter-final last Friday even though it fell on the third day of the Ashes Test at Old Trafford.
"If he is able to play [against Worcester] we will explore that, but I have absolutely no idea at the moment," Gillespie said. "We will see if he is able and willing. He is always willing. He wanted to play in the Blast quarter. I phoned Trev [Trevor Bayliss, the England coach] to say 'any chance, mate' but he just said 'nope'. We had a little laugh about it."
Gloucestershire themselves may have suffered from playing in the fourth and last of those quarter-finals, only three days before entertaining Sussex. The 20-over loss to Derbyshire on home soil, especially in so emphatic a fashion, must have hit them hard, and Dawson thinks they were simply unable to reproduce their standard level of performance back in red-ball mode.
"Up to this point, we have done well by grinding games out and keeping things simple," he said. "Possibly after the excitement of the T20s we need to remember to keep things simple again. We cannot worry about what is going on in the rest of the country, just concentrate on our own game. It is a tight division because all of the teams can pretty much beat each other."
Of the contenders, Gloucestershire and Glamorgan have been out of Division One for the longest, 14 years. Durham were there as recently as 2017 before being demoted by the ECB and handed a 48-point penalty for 2018. Their success has been based around the pace of Chris Rushworth and Ben Raine, who are both ever-presents and have shared 109 wickets. Promotion would be cheered far outside the county border, though Tom Harrison and Colin Graves would doubtless meet a frosty response from members if they went to Chester-le-Street to congratulate them in person.
Glamorgan have not been the same since Marnus Labuschagne was pulled away by Australia. He is still the leading run-scorer in the division. They must be an outside bet, but a single win may prove enough for Northamptonshire as it would simultaneously dent a rival. That is the positive slant on a run-in versus Durham, then that one against Gloucester. At Bristol, they will have the considerable advantage, as visitors, of bowling first. It may make the difference.