Essex may have run away with the title, but the culmination of the 2017 County Championship will not be short of tension or drama. For five of the eight teams in the top flight, the battle to avoid relegation enters the home straight.
As we enter the last two rounds of the Division One season, Warwickshire’s defeat to the newly crowned champions means that they will take one of the two relegation spots. That leaves one “up for grabs”. Currently, it is Middlesex’s to shirk.
A rain-ravaged game at Uxbridge against Hampshire meant there would be no meaningful points haul. With Somerset beating Lancashire, it meant the Cidermen drew level with the 2016 Champions on 123 points. With three wins to Middlesex’s two, Somerset were able to move out of the bottom two. It was the first time they had been out of the relegation places this season since April 10th!
But it’s not just between those two. Only 13 points separate third-placed Surrey and the last relegation spot. With two fewer Championship games this season, the middle has become a cluster. Halfway through the summer, it meant a host of sides could still entertain a title push. Now those teams are looking over their shoulders.
Somerset's road to recovery takes them to the Oval this week, while north of the River Thames, Middlesex host second-place Lancashire. Yorkshire, just a point ahead of Somerset and Middlesex, host Warwickshire at Headingley, looking for a big win to ease their woes going into the final round. Hampshire, a point behind Surrey, entertain Essex at the Ageas Bowl, hoping their opponents have partied a little too hard.
After their draw at Uxbridge, first team coach Craig White ceded that Hampshire were not out of it. An impressive start to the season, which saw them emerge as surprise title challenges, is now viewed as a useful start that has ensured they are not quite as deep in the mire as the four teams below them.
Now, early season form matters not. Whether you were flying high in April or shot down in May, the next two fixtures will determine who lives to fight in Division One for another year. That the three teams most likely to go down were the three contesting the 2016 title right up to the final day of the season shows you all you need to know. The game is a great, cruel leveler. The defending Champions now know that better than anyone.