For title contenders Essex and Surrey, the season did not end on the pitch as either would have hoped, yet it was favourites and holders Surrey who emerged triumphant in the end, finishing 20 points clear of their nearest rivals. Essex knew they had to win to stand a chance of snatching the pennant, and a visit to already-relegated Northampton seemed to be the easiest of opportunities to pile on the pressure. They chose to field first, only to find Rob Keogh in excellent form, as he smashed 172 in just 167 balls to take his side up to 369 all out. With no Essex batter reaching fifty, they were dismissed for 211 and the follow-on duly ensued. A catastrophic collapse saw them tumble to 13 for five. Paul Walter hit out, and his 73 comprised 61.34% of Essex’s total of 119, with Jack White taking five for 57 as his side wrapped up the victory by an innings and 39 runs inside three days. When Sir Alastair Cook walked back after his second-innings of 6, he was given a standing ovation by his team-mates, suggesting that rumours of his imminent retirement may prove correct. The former England captain has played 352 first-class matches, scoring 26,643 runs at 46.41, continuing for Essex for five seasons after retiring from England’s Test side.
Meanwhile, Surrey chose to field first at the Rose Bowl, and a second successive five-wicket haul from 20-year-old Tom Lawes (five for 27) saw Hampshire bowled out for 219. Young Indian star Sai Sudharsan top-scored in Surrey’s reply of 207, as Liam Dawson continued his fine recent form, taking five for 44. Will Jacks, who replaced Lawes in the team after returning from England duty, emulated him by also taking five wickets (his Surrey-best figures of five for 87), as Hampshire stumbled to 172 all out, setting a modest target of 185. Sudharsan (40) did his best, but Dawson took four more wickets and the batting fell away and Surrey were all out for 132, beaten by 52 runs. The win meant Hampshire finished in third place, four points behind Essex.
At Edgbaston, the weather meant that fewer than 180 overs were possible in the whole match, as the hosts finished their season in fourth place, 13 points behind Hampshire. Somerset chose to bat first, but collapsed to 96 for eight, only for Neil Wagner (72) to add 119 for the ninth wicket with Josh Davey before they were all out for 215. Chris Rushworth, who was awarded his county cap, took five for 47, taking him past 50 wickets for the season for the seventh time in his career. Warwickshire replied with 273, Kraigg Brathwaite concluding his disappointing stint for the county with a duck (he averaged just 7.50 across six innings). The number of counties who bring in overseas signings late in the season only for them to struggle to perform is a common feature; one does wonder whether it might make more sense to provide opportunities for younger players to develop – especially in a situation like this, where Warwickshire were always going to end up in mid-table. There was just enough time for Somerset to reach 90 for two before the match ended in a draw.
Much more dramatic was the situation at the bottom of the table, with Kent and Middlesex fighting it out over who would join Northamptonshire in the Second Division in 2024. Kent hosted Lancashire, who batted first. A Josh Bohannon century (113) combined with an unbeaten 76 from Matthew Hurst (who had started his first-class career the game before making 54 not out) saw the away side to 327 all out. Joe Denly’s 136 was the biggest contribution to Kent’s reply of 494. Luke Wells (117) became the third batter to reach three figures as Lancashire made 390 for eight before the game ended in a draw. Hurst’s impressive start to his career ended when he was out for a duck, while Tom Bailey made a career-best 78.
That draw meant the pressure was on for Middlesex at Trent Bridge, in a game that built up to a gripping climax and also saw the Pavilion End renamed the Stuart Broad End in honour of the recently retired England international, who will sadly never get to bowl from it in a competitive match. Broad made his debut for the county back in 2008, playing just 53 first-class matches for them in 16 seasons, taking 201 wickets at an average of 23.17. It was on this ground he took his unforgettable eight for 15 in the 2015 Ashes and in 2011 he took a hat-trick against India there too.
Middlesex chose to bat first and a county-best 137 from Ryan Higgins took them up to 366 all out, while Brett Hutton took five for 94. Ben Slater’s 140 was the foundation of the hosts’ reply of 384, leaving the game in the balance at the halfway point. Sam Robson’s unbeaten 105 enabled Middlesex to declare on 224 for six, after the departing Jake Ball took his last wicket for Notts (Joshua de Caires). That left the home side to chase 207, a seemingly regulation target, especially at 133 for two. But then a flurry of wickets saw them slip to 157 for seven, opening up the chance of a win for Middlesex that would have kept them in the top flight. That it should be Robson, with career-best figures of four for 46, who did most of that damage will have surprised almost all who watched on. It wasn’t quite enough, as Nottinghamshire scraped home by two wickets, thanks to the calm head of Matthew Montgomery (34 not out) and Ball, who hit the winning boundary in his final act for the county, consigning his opponents to relegation.
In the Second Division, Durham completed their title-winning season with an emphatic win over Leicestershire at the Riverside. Put in to bat, they took full advantage of the decision, with David Bedingham scoring 156 and Graham Clark hitting 119, the pair adding 208 for the fifth wicket, as they eventually declared on 457 for eight. Leicestershire had no answer to Ben Raine (five for 51) and Vishwa Fernando (four for 40) as they fell away to 143 all out. Following on, there was a late flurry from Will Davis, who hit a career-best 58, but the visitors were all out for 173, losing by an innings and 141 runs.
Worcestershire will be joining Durham in the top division, but they signed off with a six-wicket defeat at Headingley, trailing in 66 points adrift of the league winners. Yorkshire asked them to bat first, and captain Brett D’Oliveira made 103 as his side compiled 389 in 102 overs, Ben Allison making a career-best 75. To move things along, Yorkshire declared on 262 for six in reply, before the visitors were allowed to race to 232 for two declared, Jake Libby (109 not out) and Jack Haynes (113 not out) adding an unbeaten 223 for the third wicket against the friendliest of attacks. Even so, a target of 360 should not have been straightforward. Skipper Shan Masood hurried to 123 in 131 balls to set things up, while James Wharton scored a career-high 89. In the end, Yorkshire romped home in 67 overs for the loss of just four wickets.
After their recent disciplinary punishments, Sussex will have been glad about the way their season ended, with a 339-run victory over Gloucestershire at Hove. Put in to bat, they made 202 as Matt Taylor took five for 24, his best Championship figures. That proved to be enough as the away side replied with 195. It was in Sussex’s second innings that the game took a decisive turn, as the home side amassed a total of 505 for seven declared, with James Coles top-scoring with 128. Fynn Hudson Prentice, who received his county cap during the match, celebrated by smashing 71 not out in just 35 balls. Skipper Graeme van Buuren tried to rally his side, making 67 not out, but Gloucestershire managed just 173 runs in search of their target of 513, ensuring Sussex finished the season in third place, 17 points behind Worcestershire. They will hope their blossoming young side can go one better in 2024. Gloucestershire, meanwhile, ended up as the wooden spoon county, so for them the only way is up.
At Cardiff, Glamorgan chose to field first and found one man in particular a returning nightmare. Luis Reece had hit a century in both innings in their previous encounter this summer, and now he proceeded to score 139 out of his side’s total of 450 for eight declared. Glamorgan replied with 301 for five declared, before Reece completed a double double, making 119 not out. Not only had he scored four centuries in four innings against Glamorgan this summer, the first ever to complete this feat for one county against another, they were his only centuries all year. Having declared on 234 for two, Derbyshire left the hosts to chase 384, but they finished on 135 for six as the match ended in a draw.
As far as the season’s individual honours, Durham’s Alex Lees ended up as the leading runscorer, with 1347 runs at an average of 70.89, with five centuries. Josh Bonannon’s century for Lancashire helped ensure he finished as the top runscorer in Dvision One, with 1257. In total, 14 batters topped 1000 runs for the season. Luis Reece’s efforts in the last match catapulted him to the top of the batting averages of those who played eight innings or more, with 1048 runs at 87.33, while Derbyshire team-mate Leus du Plooy was the only other batter to average more than 80, his 1236 runs coming at an average of 82.40. As well as Lees, James Rew and David Bedingham also hit five centuries during the summer; no one passed fifty as many times as Lees – who did so on ten occasions.
Among the bowlers, it was a much tighter race for the leading honours. Brett Hutton of Nottinghamshire edged home as the leading wicket-taker, with 62, ahead of Essex’s Simon Harmer (61) and Durham’s Ben Raine (60), the most successful bowler in Division Two. Eleven bowlers managed 50 wickets in the summer – perhaps surprisingly, champions Surrey had no batters in the Top 30 nor any bowlers in the Top 10. Somerset’s Matt Henry had the best average of all bowlers to take 20 wickets in the summer, his 32 wickets coming at 16.18 apiece. Of those who took 50 wickets, Essex’s James Porter (19.05) narrowly edged out Warwickshire’s Oliver Hannon-Dalby (19.07).