Second season syndrome. Sophomore slump. The difficult second album. As soon as the domestic schedule for 2017 was announced, I knew I would struggle to reach the dizzy heights of my debut campaign. That shears had already been taken to the calendar and two rounds of the County Championship had been unceremoniously lopped away – like a rogue gardener cutting the heads off a couple of your prized begonias, before shrugging his shoulders and telling you they’d have died eventually anyway – was old news, but the move to Friday starts threatened to hack my early season action in half. The same work obligations that had given me the freedom to see so much cricket last year, doing the exact opposite this time around. Looking back, 2016 appears to have been the perfect time for me to come back to the summer game.
Had I started twelve months earlier, in 2015, I would have found myself in an Ashes year, although it was a series that didn’t include a Test match at Old Trafford. Lancashire gained promotion from Division Two, but they did so visiting just one of the venues I’d have wished to see, The Oval.
Instead, I saw a Championship that went right down to the final session – at both ends of the table – and watched Lancashire at all six of the 1990s Test grounds plus England at half of them. I even enjoyed a short winter tour to Australia. By the end of it, I’d attended the equivalent of ten four-day matches. It is a total I may fall well short of in 2017. Especially if those days I am able to attend are similar to the first of this game – a day which felt very much like it was being played in fast-forward, as if someone nearby had unwittingly sat on the remote control.
The scorecard for Friday makes for stark reading. Of the twenty-one batsmen who strode out to the crease, fifteen shuffled back without making it into double figures – six of whom returned, heads bowed, with just a zero to their name. The only two that stand out on the card, as they did on the field, were Liam Livingstone and Dean Elgar.
Inside fifteen minutes both Lancashire openers had gone and with only one run on the board. Haseeb Hameed, who still looked troubled by the finger injury sustained on the eve of the season, out for a five-ball duck – a score he would only marginally improve upon in the second innings. For those worried that Hameed is unravelling as easily as the strapping on the aforementioned finger – which fluttered about after him as he moved around in the field in the afternoon – it is worth remembering that his breakout 2016 season only really gained any momentum towards the end of June. After Alex Davies had also departed for nought, Livingstone entered the fray.
The last I’d seen of him was on the final afternoon of 2016 at Edgbaston, with Lancashire looking to bat out the day and secure the draw they needed to guarantee their place in Division One. My notes for that game show that he was caught by Jonathan Trott off the bowling of Jeetan Patel for 7 runs from 10 balls, together with the comment, ‘…unable to curb his attacking instincts’. Underneath of which is a comparison with his partner in the middle, Simon Kerrigan. Installed as a nightwatchman the previous evening, Kerrigan had scored the same number of runs, albeit from almost ten times as many deliveries. I recall being critical of Livingstone in an exchange with a fellow Lancastrian over his level of aggression, given the delicate situation.
As the wickets here fell around him with startling regularity, Livingstone was a picture of restraint. He would still move forward with intent to every delivery, but not every delivery need be smacked to the boundary and the young Cumbrian limited himself, at one point, to a single run in almost forty-five minutes.
Whether a result of winter with the Lions, his new found responsibility as stand-in captain or just a natural progression, Livingstone showed he can be more than a short form wrecking ball. Not that he had forgotten how to hit, with nine wickets down and only 84 runs scored, he upped the pace dramatically.
From only 12 balls, he added 25 runs – including a towering straight six, to move to 51, that stayed airborne for quite some time before it finally touched down in the pavilion’s Lancaster balcony, having bounced once on the railing before it careered into the hastily-scattering members sat behind it. There were a variety of ramps and flicks to add any runs he could, the MCC Coaching Manual Dilscooped over the boundary rope, before he was caught for 68, almost two-thirds of the Red Rose total – Luke Procter the only other player in double figures as Lancashire were all out for 109.
In a side shorn of elder statesman Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Livingstone’s uncharacteristic display of patience was a welcome surprise. One player whose patience came as no surprise to me, however, was Dean Elgar.
As the visitors began their reply, the sun appeared to have chased away the clouds. However, it soon turned out to be just a lone blue fault line in what would remain an otherwise unbroken grey sky. Likewise, Elgar would be the solitary bright spot of Somerset’s innings.
I’d last seen him at the WACA in November, in weather conditions far removed from the gloom of Manchester. Temperatures in the high-thirties and not a wisp of cover to be seen. Under the scorching Perth sun, the South African opener fended off not just the Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood deliveries that buzzed his way, but also a number of flies that buzzed around him.
It can’t have been a particularly comfortable experience – although he and JP Duminy were provided with chairs and parasols at the drinks breaks – and yet Elgar was out there for six minutes shy of eight hours. His patience at the crease tested that of some of the locals in the stands, who exhorted him to ‘have a crack!’ He would see 255 balls before he reached his century – only Ravi Ashwin and Dinesh Chandimal would record slower Test tons in 2016 – and then finally be dismissed for 127.
Having got through their first hour for 42 without loss – Lancashire’s troubles looking something of an aberration – three Somerset wickets then fell inside the six overs before tea. Marcus Trescothick only able to add 5 runs after a reprieve in the slips while Tom Abell, nine months after putting up 135 on this very ground, departed for a solitary run.
Still, Elgar remained. The left-hander crouching as the ball was delivered, retracting his head and limbs like a turtle into it’s shell, a defence-first manoeuvre. It was a philosophy of stoicism that James Hildreth rejected entirely. Preferring to go down in a blaze of glory, he would drive Procter to the boundary three times in four balls. Unable to wait until after tea for more, Hildreth played the final delivery of the afternoon onto his own stumps – the seventh wicket since lunch.
After the wicket of Steven Davies, a period of relative calm ensued. Elgar soldiered on to a half-century and he and Peter Trego amassed the only fifty partnership of the day before the latter was dismissed the very next ball. Procter accounted for Josh Davey and Luke Gregory in consecutive deliveries. A little after six o’ clock, Craig Overton, who took five wickets in the Lancashire innings, was adjudged lbw off Ryan McLaren – the eighteenth wicket of the day.
By the time stumps were drawn, Elgar still unbeaten on 66, I fully expected this game to be done and dusted before I could return on Monday. My gut feeling that this clash would not end well for the Red Rose.
Close of play: Lancashire 109, Somerset 153 for 8.
For a game that had flown by so quickly on its first day to actually make it to a fourth is remarkable. For a side that had been bowled out for just 109 runs inside forty-two overs on Friday afternoon, and then found themselves 169 behind going into their second innings sometime on Saturday afternoon, to come out after tea on that fourth day needing just three wickets for victory was unthinkable.
Five hours earlier, with play interrupted by a shower after just the eleventh ball of the morning, there were a fair few in the Old Trafford pavilion who would’ve been perfectly happy for that rain to continue all day and guarantee Lancashire the five points for a draw.
For forty minutes after the resumption, the Red Rose moved along at a steady pace, the overnight pair Stephen Parry and McLaren added 33 runs before, with a lead of over three hundred in sight, the last three batsmen fell in quick succession and without having had the chance to swing freely to pad out their total. All was set for a will they, won’t they, could they, should they fourth innings run-chase.
On another day, 295 from 77 overs – a run-rate of under four – might have appeared a tempting prospect. However, on a surface only three days removed from absolute carnage, Somerset were understandably reticent to show their hand. That they went in at lunch with 29 runs on the board owed as much to the generosity of the home side’s fielding as it did to the visitor’s bats.
After a weekend of only nine wickets over two full days, the carnage of Friday returned with a vengeance. There was to be no repeat performance for Dean Elgar, removed in the second over of the afternoon. Tom Abell, having accrued just a single run in the previous innings, made one less in this. James Hildreth was clearly keen to give it a go and, picking up where he left off on Friday, raced to 32 from his first 40 balls, but the dismissals of Trescothick and Davies soon took the wind out of his sails. The latter was bowled by a Jimmy Anderson delivery which must have made so little noise as it clipped a bail that Davies had to turn around to see what the commotion was about – all three stumps unmoved, but only one bail intact. Silent, but deadly.
By the time Hildreth and Trego departed, within five balls of one another, the outlook appeared grim for Somerset. A fact compounded by the dismissal of Davey by Ryan McLaren that brought with it tea and an end to another seven-wicket afternoon session. Less than an hour later, McLaren bowled Tim Groenewald and brought an end to the match.
Having finally seen some Championship action at Old Trafford – an intriguing up and down encounter that Lancashire had, most surprisingly, come out on top of – the four-day game is now to disappear until the middle of May. An enforced hiatus only three weeks into the season – some counties having only played twice. Despite this being just my third day of first-class cricket in this opening spell, and with the thought that I’ll have to wait the better part of a month for more, at least I can go into this break with a smile on my face.
Lancashire win by 164 runs.