From Mark Murrell
Middlesex playing at their fourth venue this season, at Clayhill Community Center, Wembley Park, seemed to hold all the cards for a difficult away trip for both Essex U1850 and U1450 teams, particularly as the U1450 team lost a key middle order player over night due to illness. Just how Essex like it, as they fought to the death, with the last board to finish in each match being pivotal.
SCCU U1850: Middx 7-9 Essex
At Wembley Park. The U1850s had a tough ask, being outrated on every board (September eligibility ratings) and all but the top two boards on live ratings. However, they more than held their own in a closer-than-expected match, to defeat the hitherto run away championship favourites on their own turf, frustrating the leader’s title ambitions for now and putting Essex in a position where qualification for the national stages is still possible (notwithstanding the losses in the first two matches of the campaign). The last game to finish, with Christopher Willoughby pressing for a win in what looked like a drawn position, secured a two board winning margin crucially reducing Surrey’s tie-break advantage over Essex to the fourth tie-break of board count in the matches played between them. The significance of this will only manifest in the last round of matches on 11 March, where Surrey must defeat Middlesex by a 9-7 margin at home or greater or match the performance of Essex away to Kent to edge Essex out of the qualifying places for the Nationals.
SCCU U1450: Middx 6½-5½ Essex
At Wembley Park. The U1450s came back from a 5–0 deficit to level and were looking good in the last and deciding game to finish too, before a blunder handed the match back to the home team in what would have been the steal of the season. Nevertheless, with the Kent v Surrey result going the way of Essex, somehow Essex are top the table on tie-break from Surrey. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this section could finish on a four-way tie for the Championship! That said, the U1450 Championship and qualification for the national stage is in our hands.
The finish to the U1850 and U1450 competitions and national stage qualification will go to the wire intwo weeks’ time. Skippers Peter Nickals and Malcolm Crane have issued a call to arms for their combined trip to St Mary Cray.