Stephen Croft and Karl Brown led Lancashire's fightback on the third day of an enthralling contest with Warwickshire at Aigburth
What larks, eh, Pip? For the umpteenth time this summer LV= County Championship cricket proved what an excellent spectacle it is at Aigburth on Wednesday as Lancashire and Warwickshire tussled for advantage in their vital Division One clash.
By close of play Lancashire had reached 374 for nine in their second innings, a lead of 283 with one day left in what has already proved to be a thoroughly engrossing contest.
But while Red Rose supporters were applauding centurion Steven Croft, and also Karl Brown, his partner in a 208-run fourth-wicket stand, they also gave a generous ovation to Warwickshire slip fielder Rikki Clarke, whose seven catches in the second innings equals the world record for an outfielder, currently held jointly by Surrey's Mickey Stewart and Gloucestershire's Tony Brown.
Add in his two snares in the first innings and the ex-Surrey and Derbyshire man is now just one catch behind the record for a match set by Gloucestershire's Wally Hammond against Surrey at Cheltenham in 1928 - and there really can't be that many records that date back to before Lancashire last won the title.
Clarke's safe hands at second slip accounted for Paul Horton, Stephen Moore and Mark Chilton in the first hour or so of Tuesday's play. Rather more significantly in the context of the match and the destiny of the title, they reduced Lancashire to 84 for three, still needing seven runs to make Jim Troughton's side bat again.
But Glen Chapple's team were rescued by the courage of youth. Faced with a situation suggesting a measure of caution might be necessary, Karl Brown and Steven Croft took the attack to the Warwickshire bowlers with a flurry of aggressive shots.
Fifty runs were scored off 57 balls as Croft lifted Jeetan Patel into the vicinity of Big Mal's "Buy A Couple, Pay Only For Two" Bargain Bookstall for a mighty six. There were creamy boundaries too, a bevvy of them from Brown, who is looking more and more like he will be a fixture in Lancashire's batting order for a decade or more.
By lunch the scoreboard read 139 for three, a lead of 48, but the ever so slightly anxious smiles on the faces of home supporters were to turn to broad grins as the afternoon session progressed and the pair added 124 runs in 35 overs.
Both men played well, but both needed their good fortune too. Brown was dropped by wicketkeeper Tim Ambrose off the persevering Keith Barker when he had made a mere 46 and Croft would have been run out on 98 if Laurie Evans's throw had hit the stumps. (Judge for yourselves - it's on the accompanying slideshow photos on this page - Ed)
That said, only a curmudgeon of the first water, a ticket inspector on Northern Rail or the people who supply Headingley with WiFi would have denied the pair a little luck. Having taken 74 balls to reach a half-century which he brought up with a pull for four off Barker, Croft reached his second Championship hundred for Lancashire - and his first since 2008 - off 141 balls, with eight fours and that bibliophile-threatening maximum.
By tea Lancashire lead was 172 and some home supporters were even toying with the prospect of a declaration. However, the third session was to belong to Riki "Buckets" Clarke, even though Lancashire scored another 111 runs which may have set up a victory tomorrow.
While Croft, Brown et al. were scoring those runs, Warwickshire were taking six wickets which may have set up a victory for them tomorrow. Or it may be a tie. County cricket is so deadly dull isn't it?
However, before the pressmen and other silly bloggers were scurrying around cyberspace tring to find the record for outfielders' catches, Aigburth stood and applauded Croft after the 26-year-old had edged Barker to Clarke to be dismissed for 122, equalling his best score in first-class cricket. Blackpool's finest was a bit chuffed with how things went too.
"I'm very pleased," he said. "My second ton's been a long time coming and I just wanted to cash in today because it's a nice pitch to bat on. Karl and I needed to dig in today and I was very happy with our contribution as a pair.
"We put on just over 200 and kept each other going, I always enjoy batting with Karl and hopefully we've set up an exciting day for tomorrow. Karl's played very patiently and he deserved a hundred. It was a great knock and every credit to him."
For yes, while Croft recorded a century, Brown was sixth out for 91 when he edged Boyd Rankin to Clarke, crouching, almost inevitably, at second slip. The Boltonian had supported Croft with patience and class, scoring his runs off 210 balls with 13 fours. Brown has waited for his opportunity in Lancashire's first team; he is seizing it with rare relish.
The rest of the session was taken up with Clarke - identified on Monday morning by The Times inestimable correspondent Pat Gibson as "the best slipper in the business" - breaking more records and Lancashire losing more wickets. Indeed, of the batsmen dismissed, only Gareth Cross (15) and Glen Chapple (22) reached double figures.
Warwickshire bowled well on the third evening and deserved their successes. Boyd Rankin finished with three for 75 and Jeetan Patel, two for 59, although it was perhaps odd that the spinner bowled only six overs in the first 70. Neil Carter took two for 73 to give him eight wickets in the match, but it was Clarke who was applauded off the Aigburth ground at the end of the third day.
And now, we have a fourth day to which we may look foward with some anticipation.
"The new ball's key, but spin is important as well and I think maybe Gary Keedy will get quite a bit out of that pitch," said Croft. "We should have a competitive score to bowl at and we'll want to make some early inroads. The aim will be to put the pressure right back on Warwickshire."
Well, yes, indeed, but it unlikely that either side will coast to their victory. What larks, eh, Steven?
Reports: Day 1 I Day 2
Photos (c) Simon Pendrigh
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