IT is never a good sign when the large white transit van belonging to Neil Beck, who operates the Sussex bookstall, is not in situ at the County Ground at Hove.
Every day, Mr Beck, an avuncular character with trademark pipe, parks his van opposite the pavilion and then retreats deep into it to bring forth all manner of hardbacks and paperbacks which he carefully lays out onto plastic tables.
If the weather forecast is indifferent, that large white van is conspicuous by its absence.
Such was the case yesterday morning, when the non-appearance of Mr Beck and his vehicle boded ill for prospects of play.
Shortly before the scheduled 10.30am start, umpires Mark Benson and Steve O’Shaughnessy emerged from the pavilion with downcast expression.
That may or may not have been due to the absence of the bookstall, but was more likely down to a wet outfield caused by early morning rain.
Although that rain had long since moved away, leaving behind it a blanket of mist, conditions were too damp for play to commence, and no sooner was it announced that the umpires would look again at 11.30am than Yorkshire first-team coach Jason Gillespie emerged from the pavilion and began walking around the boundary in his bare feet.
Was the former Australia fast bowler making a point? No, he said, just “reconnecting with the earth”, but Gillespie was frustrated that greater attempts were not made to dry the ground, with Yorkshire somewhat keener than Sussex to get the game going.
That was explained by Yorkshire’s healthy position in the Championship table – 13.5 points behind leaders Durham at the start of the day – and also by their position in this match: 246-4 in reply to Sussex’s first innings 292.
Sussex, in contrast, had nothing much to play for but pride, their own title challenge ended by last week’s thumping 285-run defeat to Durham at Chester-le-Street.
After it was decided that play would begin at 1.00pm following an early lunch, a further shower put the start time back to 2.10pm.
That meant 40 overs had been lost in total but that 56 still remained in the day – time enough for events to advance significantly and for Mr Beck to perhaps rue his decision not to bring his treasure trove of volumes.
By tea, Yorkshire’s first innings was all over, the visitors having added 80 runs and lost six wickets.
Thirty four runs was not the size of lead they had hoped for, with New Zealander Kane Williamson having failed to add to his overnight 80 and left-arm spinner Ashar Zaidi marking his Sussex debut with 4-57, but it was still sufficiently useful to give Yorkshire the edge.
When Ryan Sidebottom sent Luke Wells’s off stump cartwheeling with the third ball of the Sussex second innings, and as news reached Hove that bad light and rain had brought an early conclusion on day three of Durham’s game at Derby, with the visitors 257-4 in reply to 298, it seemed the title race was taking another twist.
It may yet take another big one today, if Yorkshire can win and if Durham are held, but Sussex rallied a touch to reach 48-2 – a lead of 14 – by the time bad light ended play with 13.5 overs remaining.
After the action finally began on a humid afternoon, Williamson fell to the 19th ball of the day when James Anyon trapped him lbw from the Sea End with a delivery that might have been drifting down leg side.
Having scored 84 and 97 in Yorkshire’s previous match against Durham, Williamson looked naturally disappointed after missing out once more on his first century for the club, but he played well during a 237-ball innings that included eight fours.
With pace bowler Steve Magoffin once again posing more questions than an inquisitive child, run-scoring was never straightforward, and the Australian claimed the sixth wicket with the total on 276 when nightwatchman Steve Patterson edged a beauty to wicktekeeper Ben Brown.
Patterson scored only 11 but did a fine job, surviving for 67 minutes and facing 55 balls.
Gary Ballance passed 1,000 first-class runs for the season before he perished for 19 trying to sweep Zaidi, the ball looping to the leg slip area where Matt Prior moved from slip to take the catch.
Yorkshire reached 300 and a third batting point with four deliveries of the 110-over cut-off point remaining, losing their eighth wicket on 313 when Adil Rashid lofted Zaidi to mid-on.
Sidebottom was yorked by Lewis Hatchett and Plunkett stumped giving Zaidi the charge, the former Durham man having contributed a useful 27.
After Sidebottom removed Wells early in the Sussex reply, Chris Nash and Michael Yardy added 29 before Yardy drove Plunkett to Phil Jaques at cover.
There was time for only five more overs before the light closed in, by which time it would have been too dark to read one of Mr Beck’s books in any case.