The tensions and anxieties of the title run-in, on and off the field, are all evident at Liverpool
For the most part polo shirts and chinos have already given way to fleeces and anoraks as the favoured attire for spectators at cricket matches this chill September. The blustery wind off the Mersey certainly justified an extra layer or two on Wednesday evening and conversation in the press tent this morning centred on cold remedies and fingerless mitts, the latter garments being a Hardcastle speciality.
But one of the things most noticeable about Thursday's cricket at Aigburth was that the weather's vicissitudes did not deflect the spectators' attention from the sport in the middle. While the crowd may have numbered barely a thousand or so - my train was full of new-blazered schoolchildren this morning - it made up in concentration for what it lacked in size. To appreciate this most fully one needed to walk around the boundary - a practice which always helps my own work in any case - and study the crowd watching the game in front of them. Their desire of most of them to see a wicket fall seemed yoked to a determination to understand how it might be taken.
There need be no surprise expressed in the spectators' absorption. The game being played is serious business for both these sides and it merits close study. The home players' explosions of joy when a wicket fell only threw the intensity of their effort into even sharper relief. Hampshire, having found their form in the last month of the season, are fighting to stay in the First Division. Lancashire...well we know what prize Glen Chapple's side are battling to win, one that ensures that the years 1934 or 1950 are returned to being mere dates rather than oft-quoted landmarks in their history.
As in last year's match against Hampshire at Liverpool, the standard of cricket is high. Indeed, I think that has again been one of the distinguishing features of the 2011 First Division season. Another has been the comparatively small difference in quality between the teams at the top of the table and those at its foot. The two sides relegated will be slightly worse than the other seven and may still be unlucky to go down; the team that wins the title may consider itself slightly better than the other eight and may still have had the rub of the green. For example, over the past two days it has been raining almost everywhere except Liverpool 19, where the microclimate has been benevolent, and even blessed us with some warm sunshine this afternoon.
The cricket continued to be compelling partly because it featured one of the game's most intricate inner duels: that between a pair of genuine spinners and a technically accomplished batsman. Gary Keedy has now taken 53 First Division wickets in 2011; at its best, his bowling illustrates Ray Illingworth's axiom that the slow bowler's variations should not be observable from their boundary: if they are, they will be all too obvious to the batsman. Simon Kerrigan admits that he is still learning his craft: he seems to me to possess a fine loop and the ability - of which he rather makes light - to bowl a fine arm-ball.
It was just such a delivery which dismissed Hampshire's Jimmy Adams in the final session of today's play. Having batted 204 minutes for his 54 runs, the opener didn't get to the pitch of a Kerrigan delivery - loop again? - and by playing for spin allowed the ball to catch the edge and go to slip. It was one dismissal in a long season, the end of one part of one quarter of one sixteenth of the Championship programme. Yet Liverpool spectators will remember that Adams batted for 635 minutes in making an epic 194 at Aigburth barely a year ago. His wicket is one Glen Chapple's players prize most highly; and he has to bat again.
And finally I should like to thank readers who have got in contact with me regarding my incarceration at Trent Bridge. It has all been most instructive. The moral of the experience seems to be to forget poetry; nothing gets you noticed like being locked in a cricket ground on August Bank Holiday. I must try it again sometime.
Photo (c) Simon Pendrigh
Article (c) Lancashire County Cricket Club