Paul Edwards witnesses another day of fluctuating fortunes in the Championship title race
Watching Lancashire claw their way towards a respectable first-innings total at Aigburth this afternoon prompted consideration of the wonderful complexities of the County Championship. By the middle of the second session it was difficult to assess what a good score might be on the Liverpool wicket, yet this was only one of the fascinations of the Hampshire match, and the struggle to win either the First or Second Division comprises 16 four-day contests spread over more than five months of three English seasons. (Those of us who attended Lancashire's game against Derbyshire at Buxton in 1975 would suggest that a taste of all four is not unknown.)
Even more significantly, those matches are played on 16 different wickets, from greentops through raging turners to shirt-fronts, each of which require very different skills from the cricketers attempting to bat or bowl on them. A football match has comparative uniformity of surface and clarity of outcome to commend it: after 45 minutes it is often quite clear what the result is going to be. A game of four-day cricket offers few such simplicities: the two teams can play for six or twelve hours and still it may not be quite plain who, if anyone, is on top. A two-goal lead is precisely that; a score of 250 may be excellent or dreadful or merely par for the course. The numbers on the board do not always tell the story.
Then, of course, there is the weather. A snowed-off rugby match is replayed; a rain-ruined first-class cricket match is gone for good, a fact that has never been lost on Lancashire's followers. Last Saturday evening, for example, Warwickshire needed 135 more runs off about 21 overs to beat Yorkshire as the light closed in at Edgbaston. Both Shiv Chanderpaul and Jim Troughton were going well when Peter Hartley and Jeff Evans took the players off. Had Warwickshire won that match they would have been 16 points clear of Lancashire going into this week's games. Upon such meteorological differences are championships won and lost.
One of the attractions of cricketers' diaries is that they frequently do credit to the richness of the unfolding season. Peter Roebuck, Brian Brain and Mark Wagh, to name but three, have all chronicled their counties' attempts to win trophies during summers in which optimism either gave way to disappointment or was triumphantly justified. Even when you know what happened in the seasons being described, the books are still worth reading for the human insight they contain. You would need to be unobservant indeed to travel around the country playing professional sport with a group of men for over five months and not gain a deeper understanding of their characters.
John Barclay's The Appeal of the Championship: Sussex in the Summer of 1981 (published by Fairfield Books in 2002) is one of the least-known of the genre, yet it focuses specifically on the first-class game and the attempt of Barclay's team to win their first title. (Students of the career of Peter Moores will know how their campaign ended up.) Barclay was the Sussex captain during the season in question and he was well placed to give an insight into the task of trying to coax the best out of a diverse group of professional sportsmen.
As I complete this piece the rain is bucketing down at Aigburth yet Lancashire's total of 337 for seven looks formidable indeed. Precisely how strong it is, though, we shan't know until Hampshire have batted. Then again, the weather may take a hand, as it threatened to do but never quite did on Wednesday. A season which began in warm Spring sunshine 153 days ago still has a week to run.
Photo (c) Simon Pendrigh
Article (c) Lancashire County Cricket Club