Lancashire's cricketers could not have asked for much more from the first day of their game against Cambridge MCCU at Fenner's.
Faced with a hard-working university attack and batting first on a demanding wicket, Steven Croft's batsmen eventually dominated proceedings, scoring 277 for five in 93.5 overs.
It took time, though, and it needed hard, attritional cricket to secure the advantage. For example, when Karl Brown was lbw to the excellent Peter Turnbull four overs after lunch the champions were 104 for three and Cambridge held the initiative. Croft, however, skippering the side in place of the rested Glen Chapple, led the recovery by batting as patiently as he has ever done to make 80 not out off 163 balls in 222 minutes.
The No5 shared a 150-run partnership for the fourth wicket with Luke Procter, who applied himself in a similarly tough professional manner to make 77 in 176 balls.
By the close, Procter had been dismissed lbw by the Cambridge captain and St Bede's old boy Rob Woolley, and Tom Smith had departed in similar fashion for two, thus giving the persistent Turnbull his fourth wicket of the day. This, in other words, was proper cricket, far removed from the stereotype of professional batsmen gorging themselves on undergraduate bowling like gourmands in an all-you-can-eat-for-a-fiver Chinese restaurant
When bad light ended this entertainment for initiates 15 minutes before the scheduled close, Croft's men knew they had been in a battle on a testing wicket, and their captain knew it most of all.
"That was the sort of practice you need ahead of playing championship cricket," said Croft. "Cambridge bowled really well in conditions where it was both swinging and nipping around a bit and you had to graft for your runs."
"Playing the MCC in Abu Dhabi was a good experience and we all had a good time in the middle, but realistically it's not what we're going to get next week in Liverpool next week, so it was important to get some time at the crease today."
Seven hours before, on a cold, blue morning, Croft probably had little hesitation in opting to bat first, but the champions' top order took their time to get their measure of a willing home attack.
Pontypridd seamer Peter Turnbull claimed the first of his wickets when he defeated Stephen Moore's expansive drive in the 11th over and removed the opener's off stump. That dismissal set the tone of a day in which the Cambridge bowlers restricted Lancashire to a scoring-rate of less than three runs an over.
Paul Horton and Karl Brown added 64 for the second wicket but the opener chopped Turnbull on to his leg stump when he had made a 95-ball 40 and Brown followed for 42 in the fourth over after lunch, being adjudged lbw immediately after stroking two dreamy boundaries.
Indifferently placed at that point, Lancashire's plight could have been a whole lot worse had Croft been caught in the gully before he had scored, but he made the most of his let-off and joined Procter in a stand which shifted the balance of the play. No one is betting that there will be any more 150-run stands in this game.
Cambridge's late successes in removing Procter and Smith were well deserved. The team coached by Chris Scott had played like hard-nosed professionals instead of callow undergraduates whose minds were detrimentally preoccupied by thoughts of Wittgenstein or medieval chiliasm.
Turnbull finished with four for 72 from 24 overs and Woolley one for 55 in 22. Matt Salisbury, Paddy Sadler and Zafar Ansari gave them decent support. With Sussex arriving at Aigburth next week and Warwickshire on the horizon soon afterwards, Lancashire are no doubt suitably grateful for their efforts.
"Cambridge have a good strong bowling attack and it's quite tough when you first bat on that wicket," said Croft. "But on the other hand, it's good preparation because if we can keep our shape when we're batting on those surfaces, it will put us in good stead for when we get on the flatter ones. Pitches like that are encouraging for the bowlers, though, so if we're disciplined out there, we should get our share of wickets too."
Photo of Steven Croft (c) Simon Pendrigh
Article (c) Lancashire CCC