By Andrew Radd at Northampton
First day of four: Northants 102-6 v Sussex
SUSSEX have managed only one championship victory over Northamptonshire in 15 meetings but must be optimistic of improving that record after enjoying much the better of a rain-shortened day at Wantage Road.
The visitors' attack, with former Northants seamer Mark Robinson outstanding, captured six wickets in 25 overs after Kevin Curran had opted to bat first on a worn and grassless pitch used recently for five days of cricket against Kent.
Heavy showers delayed the start until 3.40pm and the blustery conditions caused problems for the bowlers, Alex Edwards being forced to pull up short of the crease more than once as the gusty wind apparently blew him off balance.
Edwards made the initial breakthrough, trapping Alec Swann leg before, and James Kirtley found some extra bounce to remove Rob Bailey, who fenced to forward short leg.
Justin Bates's off-spin accounted for Tony Penberthy and David Sales, while Robinson - who finished the day with notable figures of two for 13 from 10 overs - bowled Kevin Innes, making his first championship appearance of the season, and David Ripley.
Day 2: Davies and Brown grease Sussex's path
By Andrew Radd at Northampton
Second day of four: Northants (178 & 104-4) lead Sussex (72) by 210 runs
NORTHAMPTONSHIRE could soon find themselves coming to terms with a nasty case of negative equity. Victory is likely after 18 wickets clattered at Wantage Road yesterday, but an ECB panel inspected the pitch and are expected to announce their verdict at the end of the match.
They have the power to deduct up to 25 points, and such a punishment might serve to re-open the debate over whether head groundsmen should be employed by the national governing body to produce surfaces in the best interests of cricket rather than being obliged to furnish what their club's coach or captain desires.
Sussex were despatched for 72 inside 44 overs by the spin of Michael Davies (five for 19) and Jason Brown (five for 23), and the home side's 210-run lead should be enough to secure their third championship win of the summer.
Northants' last four first-innings wickets added 74 with Kevin Curran playing an uncharacteristically restrained innings of 60 in three hours. The value of his efforts, and the costly nature of the escape he enjoyed with only four to his name on the first evening, were quickly undermined as left-armer Davies and off-spinner Brown went to work.
Davies joined the attack in the sixth over and Sussex sensed what was to come as the 22-year-old Loughborough University graduate's first ball turned prodigiously and his third kept wickedly low to give Wasim Khan, back on his stumps, no chance.
Toby Peirce fell to Davies immediately after lunch, boldly sweeping and he then claimed the key wicket of Chris Adams, the victim of another sweep.
Rajesh Rao's stay of 20 overs ended with a drive to mid-on and that presaged the final flurry of edges and misses during which the last five wickets tumbled for six runs in the space of 39 deliveries.
The Northants pair did a thoroughly efficient job in the most helpful of conditions. Davies, almost unplayable at times, clearly relished his first championship outing of the season while Staffordshire-born Brown, who augments his cleverly-flighted off-break with an impressive 'floater' away from the right-hander, reached 50 first-class wickets in only his 14th match when he bowled Justin Bates.
Northants slipped to 35 for four at the start of their second innings; Bates striking three times in successive overs, but Curran and Kevin Innes added an unbroken 69, the highest partnership of the match to date, to play out the 21 overs up to the close.
Day 3: Northants have points docked for unfit pitch
By Andrew Radd at Northampton
Third day of four. Northamptonshire (178 and 165) bt Sussex (72 and 135) by 136 runs
THE decision by Northamptonshire to risk playing on a pitch marked ``poor'' only nine days previously without any serious attempt at renovation, backfired in spectacular fashion as they suffered the maximum 25-point penalty at the hands of an ECB investigating panel yesterday.
The verdict announced in a statement released at the conclusion of the match by Mike Denness, the former England captain and chairman of the Board's Pitches Advisory Group, entirely soured the home side's victory, secured with four sessions to spare after England A's Graeme Swann had captured the last five wickets in eight overs.
Left to score 272 to win, Sussex were never realistic contenders and folded for 135 half an hour before tea. Northants collected 20 points but, thanks to the offending 22 yards, come out of this excursion into the gambling den down on the deal.
Chief executive Steve Coverdale said that no comment would be forthcoming from the club until after a meeting of their general committee on Monday evening.
However, Denness and his colleagues, Mike Hurst and John Carr, were damming in their assessment of the preparation work on the pitch - or lack of it - since the same strip had been used for the AXA League fixture played against Kent on Aug 30.
The statement said: ``The umpires had indicated then that the pitch was slow, highly variable in bounce and offered considerable turn. In the nine days after the AXA match there had been no re-preparation of the pitch and no watering or rolling had taken place.''
It continued: ``In the panel's view there was, therefore, never any prospect of the pitch being up to the desired standard. The problems experienced were considered to be the result of a surface that was too dry, excessively worn and inadequately prepared.
``The panel wishes to re-emphasise that the Pitches Advisory Group is very keen to see pitches which bring spinners into matches as they progress. However, this pitch did not achieve the desired balance between the different facets of the game.''
Batsmen on both sides would concur wholeheartedly with that view, while the match can have done little to further the education of the four young spin bowlers on view - Swann, Michael Davies and Jason Brown, of Northants, and Justin Bates, of Sussex - who are unlikely to come across too many comparable surfaces in their future careers.
Bates returned figures of five for 67 as Northants lost their last six wickets for 61 at the start of the day. Skipper Kevin Curran top-scored with 46 then Paul Taylor enlivened proceedings with a brisk 22, including one swat over midwicket which owed more to Flushing Meadows than Wantage Road.
Sussex were denied a solid foundation to their improbable run-chase when Taylor first removed Toby Peirce's leg and middle stumps in his opening over. He then ran out Chris Adams, who had made 14, with a deft flick as the Sussex captain tried to take a sharp single and had Rajesh Rao taken at second slip next ball.
Opener Wasim Khan battled his way to 28 in 29 overs before he was bowled by Davies. Thereafter Swann, not called upon to bowl in the first innings, rattled through the rest to claim five for 29, his best championship figures to date.
TEAMS FINED FOR UNSUITABLE PITCHES
1989: Essex v Yorkshire at Southend, July 22-25.
Notts v Derbyshire at Trent Bridge, Aug 19-21.
1990: Derbyshire v Middlesex at Derby, Aug 18-21.
1994: Lancashire v Middlesex at Old Trafford, July 21-23.