County Championship: Somerset and Essex set for Taunton title decider
|Somerset v Essex, Specsavers County Championship Division One|
|Venue: Taunton Date: 23-26 September|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra & BBC Somerset, plus live text and in-play video highlights on desktop, tablets, mobiles and app.|
A thrilling summer of cricket is set for one more dramatic plot line on Monday when the County Championship title goes to a head-to-head decider.
By quirk of the fixtures, Division One's top two - Somerset and Essex - meet at Taunton in the final match this season to decide which of them ends up with two trophies.
T20 Blast winners Essex, last crowned county champions in 2017, have a 12-point lead over One-Day Cup winners Somerset, who are chasing their first Championship title.
Meanwhile, three counties - Northants, Gloucestershire and Glamorgan - are in contention for the two promotion places to go up behind Division Two champions Lancashire.
A first Somerset championship?
Somerset and Essex have been Division One's pacesetters for most of the season, but the lead has changed hands twice in the closing month in an engaging title race.
Somerset - who will have spinner Jack Leach back from England duty - will need victory on home soil to make that happen.
"We've got one game to go and it's must-win," captain Tom Abell told BBC Somerset.
"As disappointing as defeat by Hampshire was, we've got to put it behind us and be in the best frame of mind possible.
"We need a positive result and we have to dust ourselves off and make sure we're ready.
"You look at the support we've had all season, there's a huge amount of excitement around Somerset cricket.
"As a team, we're desperate to deliver a championship and this game is a massive opportunity to do that."
Or a second Essex title in three years?
Essex are undefeated since the first game of the season and have won seven of their past eight matches, but skipper Ryan ten Doeschate knows they still have a job to do despite being top.
"It's a nice position to be in," he told BBC Essex. "Even being a few points behind last week changed the dynamic.
"But we've given ourselves an incredible chance to win the Championship again.
"The string of victories we've had and going up against Somerset, who've been incredible, shows the intensity of this competition.
"Nine wins this season so far for both sides is good going. You can't afford to slip up in the County Championship more than once or twice, otherwise the chance to win it has gone.
"So, it's two sides who've played with high intensity from the beginning of the year going head-to-head and it's nice to go there 12 points ahead."
The Simon Harmer factor
Essex's South African spinner Simon Harmer has played a key role again this season as the Championship's leading wicket-taker, having claimed 78 scalps at 18.12 apiece.
He has also been Essex's T20 Blast skipper, leading from the front on Finals Day as he took 4-19 in the semi-final, 3-16 in the final and then hammered a match-winning 18 runs from seven balls at the death to finally see off holders Worcestershire.
It earned Essex their first piece of silverware since winning the Championship on the same ground at Edgbaston two years ago. And Harmer said after the game that they were not planning to get on the team coach to Taunton without some form of celebration.
"We're not planning to go nuclear - just as long as everyone's on the bus," said Harmer.
"Personally I'd like it to go four days, no weather, then we can beat them at home and rightfully be champions. But, with the weather forecast, they need a result wicket, it's going to turn and they are going to try and win it in two days."
'Last warning' for Somerset?
Somerset last year received a final warning from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) after their Taunton pitch was found to be "below average" for a game against Lancashire.
They were told a points deduction would be applied for any future breach of regulations but Harmer expects the pitch to be spin-friendly for the title decider.
"Somerset are on their last warning for the pitches they have prepared over the course of however many years," said Harmer.
"But we hold the cards. We've played extremely well after losing our first game. We're unbeaten at home where the wicket does turn so we've found a formula at Chelmsford that works for us. Hopefully we can take that to Taunton.
"It's certainly important that we have our spin bases covered. Perhaps we're going to have play two outright spinners. I'm not privy to those conversations.
"If you look at the way Aron Nijjar played on Finals Day having not played in the tournament before, he showed a lot of character.
"In 2017, we won it here in Birmingham with two games left. This time we have had to work harder. Somerset have played some extremely good cricket.
"They possibly stumbled at the wrong time losing to Hampshire last week and letting us go ahead. But we've had to play to win and perhaps that has helped us."
Who will join Lancashire in Division One?
One other matter that will be decided in the final week of the season is who will gain promotion from Division Two.
With Division One expanding to 10 teams in 2020, three promotion places have been up for grabs. Lancashire have already won the Division Two title, but two of three sides will join them.
Second-placed Northamptonshire need just four points to secure their place and they travel to the other county currently in possession of a promotion spot, Gloucestershire.
The only other side who can overhaul them are fourth-placed Glamorgan, who make the long trip to Durham knowing nothing less than a win will keep their hopes alive.
Gloucestershire's advantage over Glamorgan is 16 points, which is the same amount available for a win. So even a defeat with a healthy return of batting and bowling bonus points could be enough for Gloucestershire.
But Glamorgan, who spent the majority of the Championship season in the top two when Australia batsman Marnus Labuschagne was in full flow, last week won for the first time since they lost him to the Ashes series and have at least now given themselves a chance.