By Matt Somerford
Cheshire displaced Wiltshire at the top of the Unicorns Championship Western Division with a convincing 226-run win at Salisbury.
Centuries from Richard Moore and opener Calum Rowe in each innings paved the way for a success that saw Cheshire leap up from third and into pole position to qualify for the final with a round of fixtures remaining.
While Staffordshire are clear in the race to reach the final from the Eastern Division, Cheshire lead a tight contest between five counties in the west.
Wiltshire and Hertfordshire are both within four points of the leaders, while Shropshire and Devon would need slip-ups to sneak through.
Hertfordshire leapt up to third after they thrashed Cornwall by 266 runs at Truro but Devon suffered the biggest hit to their title bid as a 58-run defeat to Shropshire dropped them from second to fifth.
Shropshire were able to leap above their hosts and could yet make further progress with a trip to Wiltshire to finish off their campaign.
Cheshire look well-placed to fend off the chasing pack, however, with second-bottom Oxfordshire waiting in their final group game.
Moore’s first innings century helped Cheshire claim a crucial 53-run lead over Wiltshire before Rowe hit an imperious 155, with half-centuries from Moore and Lee Dixon, to declare at 381 for four.
Wiltshire never came close to threatening a successful chase as Moore’s 3-45 completed his fine game.
Bradley Wadlan claimed five wickets in each innings as Herefordshire dominated Cornwall.
Wadlan took 5-53 first time around to bowl out Cornwall for 159, and secure a 204-run first-innings lead that proved more than enough when he then took 5-48 after being handed the new ball.
Shropshire edged a low-scoring contest as Devon failed to chase down a victory target of 155 at Exeter.
Slow left-armer Gurman Randhawa was Shropshire’s hero as he took 7-53 before his 6-45 helped bowl Devon out for 96 in their chase.
Dorset were 10-wicket winners over Wales Minor Counties, who were bowled out for 124 and 114. Dorset opener Masoor Khan then faced all 17 balls of the chase, hitting 22 of the 23 runs they needed to win, as Michael Porter watched on.
Oxfordshire and Berkshire played out a draw in the other match in the division at Great Tew.
Chris Watling’s unbeaten 107 helped set Berkshire a target of 371, but they only got as far as 108 for one.
In the Eastern Division, Staffordshire claimed a fourth successive triumph, by nine wickets over Bedfordshire, to go 14 poinst clear of their rivals.
Staffs had been in trouble after the first day, but Michael Hill’s unbeaten 110 began the fightback before Paul Byrne’s 6-38 left them with a chase of 76.
Alex Mellor and Alex Thomson knocked off the remaining runs early on the third day to move Staffs within touching distance of their first Eastern Division title since 1998.
Cumberland are their closest rivals after they beat Hertfordshire by six wickets at Long Marston.
Josh Tolley hit a century and Toby Bulcock took four wickets in each innings to keep Cumberland’s finals hopes alive.
They host last-placed Northumberland in their final game, while Staffs have a trickier task as they must go to third-placed Cambridgeshire needing 11 points to make sure they finish top.
Cambridgeshire beat Northumberland by eight wickets at March.
Buckinghamshire snuck a 32-run win over Lincolnshire at Grantham after they had relinquished a strong position when bowled out for 130 second time around.
But Matthew Rance’s 7-92 bowled out Lincs for 219.
Norfolk were 91-run winner against Suffolk at Horsford after they twice declared on the back of a Sam Arthurton century and then 88 from opener James Spelman.