With the County Championship having gone into seclusion for the time being – it will briefly stick its head out of the window in early August before retreating, once more, until the end of that month – and weather and work conspiring to limit my days watching live cricket since June, it would seem a good time to roundup the events of the first half of 2017. Rather helpfully the only part of Lancashire’s encounter with Hampshire that I would attend, and which I’m now about to belatedly write about, took the form of a handy microcosm of the season thus far.
With play on the second day finally ending at ten minutes to seven and the Red Rose county having recovered from their obligatory top order collapse to battle past the follow-on target, I surmised to a fellow watcher that this game would likely end in a draw. Almost four months before, I’d pessimistically stated that Lancashire’s season would be more concerned with matters at the bottom of the table rather than those at the top. On both occasions I have found myself pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
Hampshire began what was a sunny June day with two wickets remaining, but before one of the locals nearby could remove his shirt to carry on sunbathing where he had so clearly left off on the first day – his back as red as the buildings opposite – they were very soon down to one. With his eighth delivery of the morning, James Anderson removed Brad Taylor for only his ninth wicket of what has been a rather stop-start campaign. Having being rested for only the second game of the season, the England thoroughbred would pull up lame less than an hour into the fourth – a home Roses clash in May – and miss the better part of three matches before returning for this encounter.
That the catch was taken in the slips by the sun-hatted South African, and Lancashire’s leading wicket-taker, Ryan McLaren rather sums up the story of the Red Rose attack. It has been very much a team effort. Without someone truly dominating proceedings, wickets have been spread evenly throughout the side. In Hampshire’s first innings, each bowler took at least one, but no-one more than two – Stephen Parry, a surprise choice in supplanting Simon Kerrigan as spinner, was responsible for the sides sole Championship 5-fer, coming in the recent win over Middlesex at Southport.
For only the third time this year Lancashire had what is probably their first choice bowling attack, albeit supplemented for this game by Luke Procter. The much-improved Jordan Clark – another unexpected inclusion in the side as a second all-rounder, has shown himself to be a useful fourth quick – spent a good portion of the first hour poking Kyle Abbott with a stick he might’ve found himself being beaten with at some point in the coming days. Abbott creeping his way, single by single, towards a hopeful First-Class century, was served up a diet consisting only of bouncers.
Kyle Jarvis, the side’s bowling mainstay of recent years, has only played in half of the games up to this point. Having replaced Clark, his first action of the morning was to be driven for four by Abbott before following his predecessors lead and reverting to the short stuff.
With the South African just three runs shy of his target, the heat may have gone to Ian Salisbury’s head as McLaren tempted him into an ill-advised pull shot which spooned high in the air only to end up in the hands of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Abbott was clearly unimpressed, giving his teammate not even a glance, before he raced off the field to prepare himself to take the new ball.
If Lancashire’s bowling has been remarkably consistent, then so too has their batting, although, not in an entirely good way. Once again, their young opener was removed early on. This time, however, it wasn’t Haseeb Hameed, but his replacement Rob Jones.
Having been cracked on the helmet by a Gareth Berg delivery that ran away for a couple of runs – head byes, perhaps – the very next one struck him on the pads and Jones was dismissed leg before wicket for 2. Despite plenty of runs in the seconds, his limited time in the Championship has resulted in 37 from just three innings.
Hameed, playing for the Lions, fared little better with a duck in the first and 2 in the second. Curiously, of the three times I’ve watched him this year, the only time he has made any runs was in the one-day cup.
Also missing was Liam Livingstone. After his heroics in the Somerset game things have gone a little quiet for the big hitter, at least with Lancashire. He has also missed three of the last four rounds of the Championship, two with the Lions and one in making his T20 debut for England.
Much like Jones, Luke Procter, in the side for Livingstone, has scored regularly in the 2nd XI. Unfortunately, much like Jones, he has been unable to reproduce theses results when promoted. Today he was bowled by Berg through a gap in his defences almost as big as that between the Pavilion and the newly-built hotel. Had he thought to install a skywalk between his bat and pad, as there is between the two buildings, he may well have survived.
Captain Stephen Croft, his average lower this year than last when he was burdened with the role of emergency keeper, toiled under the hot sun for eight minutes short of an hour in return for just a solitary run. Like a man on his hands and knees searching the desert sands for water only to taste a single drop before his camel urinated in his discovery, only with Kyle Abbott playing the part of the spoilsport.
Lancashire were 69-3 and it was no great surprise that 50 of those had come via the bat of Alex Davies. Bumped up the order to open, the 22-year-old wicketkeeper has responded with almost six hundred runs whilst looking suitably accomplished behind the stumps – hands off England!
Whilst those at two, three and four in the side have appeared particularly shaky, the gentleman who walked out at five has looked anything but. So still, solid and reliable at the crease that he might be cast in bronze, surely somewhere there must be a statue of Shivnarine Chanderpaul? Any fears that at almost 43, he was too old for first-class cricket have been dispelled with 559 runs in just nine innings.
Together he and Davies plundered the Hampshire bowlers – in one particular over they both launched young spinner Brad Taylor for six. Chanderpaul then hit Sean Ervine out of the attack almost on his own. By the time Taylor gained a measure of revenge, having the West Indian stumped for 33, the home side had moved to a much more respectable 151-4.
Davies finally departed having made 115. His third century of the year a mixture of sweetly timed straight drives, delicate directing of short balls and risky reverse sweeps that only just evaded the hands of fielders and ran away for four. James Vince, having dropped him with a difficult chance on 98, is the bowler to entice him into a pull shot that ended up with Michael Carberry on the long boundary.
Next to the crease was Lancashire’s other high profile Kolpak signing, Dane Vilas. After a promising debut of two half-centuries, the one-time South Africa wicketkeeper, has not quite lived up to expectations in the Championship. In seven innings since that first game he has made four scores in single figures and not found his way out of the twenties in the other three. His displays in the one day cup have been much better though and the 32- year-old treated this game as such in scoring an almost run a ball fifty.
Together with Ryan McLaren, Vilas saw the Red Rose past the follow-on target and to the end of the day. A day in which believers in the Kolpakalypse will have seen grim tidings in the late appearance of the four horsemen – Abbott and Gareth Berg charging in from each end and Vilas and McLaren riding up and down the wicket.
On the following day, McLaren claimed his first century for the Red Rose – currently he has over 400 runs to add to his 25 wickets, an excellent return for the overseas signing – but his countryman would go further. Much further. By the time Vilas was the final out he’d amassed 244 runs – doubling his total for the season with the highest score in Division One this year – from a Lancashire total of 593.
By the third evening, Anderson had finally hit his stride. Possibly with the scent of an upcoming Test series in his nostrils, he ran through the Hampshire top order taking 4 wickets in return for seven runs. McLaren and Jarvis would mop up the rest on the final afternoon giving the Red Rose victory by an innings and 30 runs and an unlikely second spot in the table as the Championship wound down for the most limited of limited overs cricket. Which brings us to where we came in.
Glen Chapple in his opening spell has made an excellent start. His side are currently 2nd in the table and, despite an awful start, were in contention to progress in the one day cup right up until the final evening. They have also won two of their opening five games in the Blast. The shifting of Davies to opener has worked, so too the inclusion of Clark in the Championship side and promotion of Parry. Chanderpaul has made plenty of runs and Vilas has contributed in all three formats. Anderson may well have played his last appearance for Lancashire this season, but both Tom Bailey and Saqib Mahmood have shown decent form in their outings so far. Optimism, not to mention pollen, is in the air around Old Trafford. Haseeb Hameed even made a century this week – as did Rob Jones and, inevitably, Shivnarine Chanderpaul – even if it was only for the 2nd XI.
Last year, a good start that saw the county top the table for a time, fell away drastically to see the Red Rose only escape relegation on the final day. On the evidence so far they appear a much better side than they were in 2016. It’s just a shame we’ll have to wait quite so long to see what will happen next.