May 1, 2013

Chapple needs back-up but it's not quite Mayday

Lancashire's bowling warrants an early-season inspection with no heir apparent for the king of Old Trafford, Glen Chapple

Whilst James Anderson's inclusion for the game against Kent brought much needed oomph to Lancashire's bowling attack, it wasn't enough to yield the desired win.

Lancashire didn't register a win in April last year and failed to recover from a sluggish start, which led to their eventual, unexpected relegation. Unfortunately for Lancashire fans (of the superstitious persuasion), April this year has also failed to deliver a victory. Is it too early to worry? Beating Kent last week would've been crucial in avoiding what the coach, Peter Moores, last year called "playing catch-up cricket". It didn't happen. With two disappointing draws behind them, May thus becomes a massive month for the club's hopes of promotion back to Division One.

Now, I'm fully aware that it is difficult to read too much into the opening games of the season. The outfield players resemble an army of Michelin men, clad in underarmour, harbouring resentment and dissent towards the absent, unfaithful summer. But if the Sherlocks and Nostrodamuses of this world are willing, it is possible to look for and find clues and cook up a prophecy. Here's my attempt at deciphering Lancashire's promotion Da Vinci code.

The addition of Ashwell Prince has solidified a batting line-up also containing Simon Katich but it is Lancashire's bowling that warrants an early inspection. Glen Chapple remains the bowling king at Old Trafford, but is he dreaming of an heir apparent? Someone with whom he can ride into battle (in these twilight years) safe in the knowledge his back is well and truly covered? Judging by the Worcestershire game, it is highly likely that he is (if only subconsciously). The Lancashire skipper has been the go-to man with the ball for such a long time that while he remains a valid wicket-taking option, perhaps the mantle now needs sharing.

In the opening fixture of 2011, Chappy carried the team to victory with a nine-wicket haul against Sussex. Fast forward to April 10th 2013 and Lancashire had Worcestershire in strife at 177 for 5, only this time Chapple was unable to make the crucial breakthroughs at the right time. The result? The visitors finished on 334 and the match meandered at a glacial pace towards a draw. A week later Worcestershire were crushed from a very similar position by Glamorgan, thanks to a five-wicket haul by second-change bowler Mike Reed. All I could think was, 'We needed someone to do that last week!'

The conclusion is simple: Chapple desperately needs a tag-team partner to finish games off with the ball. I mean who else is there to land the knockout punch? Who is the tail cleaner? When there's something strange (in the opposition lower-order) neighbourhood, who we gonna call? Who is our other Ghostbuster? I dreamt of Wasim Akram's Lancashire Yorkers for three nights after that draw. But is it really that bad? Am I exaggerating the lack of support for Chapple? Let's examine the evidence further.

Early signs suggest Luke Proctor and Simon Kerrigan as worthy wicket-taking/run-containing options, but also telling was the fact that Kyle Hogg and Wayne White only managed two wickets between them in that opening fixture. As the season goes on, tough situations will require crucial wickets to be taken. Wickets with the older ball, which isn't swinging or seaming will be needed. The seamers must find a way to make this happen somehow, anyhow, if Lancashire are to win this division. They didn't quite manage it in the opening game.

Against Kent, with Kabir Ali still sidelined with that BPL-sponsored knee injury, Anderson's availability brought a sigh of relief for the fans. That optimism was rewarded when he hovered up the tail to restrict Kent to a first-innings total of 244. Lancashire could have done with that type of ruthlessness against Worcestershire because, with rain wiping out two sessions on day two, this game also drifted to an inevitable draw. Of course only time will tell if Ali can remain injury free throughout the season - Lancastrians across the county will be keeping everything crossed for that. He is one bowler alongside Chapple capable of producing something out of nothing, the ability to reverse the older ball, the experience to out-think batsmen.

On a positive note, as I mentioned in my preview blog, the batting line-up is strong, arguably the strongest in the division. Katich and Prince have both found good early season form and I can't wait for them to really cut loose in better batting conditions once the climate warms up some more. The slow run rate in the opening two fixtures isn't a worry for me. Difficult early season batting conditions seldom afford high scoring rates in England.

So worry not, folks, I expect that to pick up and the batting to underpin a successful season ahead. The wish is that the bowlers can provide potent support adequate to winning games - because performances against Worcestershire and Kent have shown the lack of killer instinct in Chapple's supporting cast (Anderson aside). Lancashire's bowling unit must find a way to capitalise on advantageous situations to turn future draws into wins. A testing month lies ahead, with fixtures against Glamorgan, Essex, Hampshire and Gloucestershire. Whatever happens, April has gone, what's done is done and all that's left to say is: May the force be with you lads. As Oasis would put it: "Know what I mean?"

Rana Malook writes about cricket and music and once harboured dreams of appearing on ESPNcricinfo as a player until his back folded like warm laundry at the age of 19. He tweets here