Worcestershire face test of their belief
Nottinghamshire 223 and 104 for 5 v Worcestershire 243
One of the oldest clichés in sport is the 'Lazarus syndrome': the Biblical metaphor churned out whenever a team comes back from the brink of defeat.
Worcestershire, however, have mastered the reverse-Lazarus syndrome. So far in the 2011 season they have made a habit of miraculously transforming almost impregnable match-winning positions into remarkable match-losing ones. Truly, there have been times this season when they have given the impression that they could put down the living and infect the healthy. Their form has been quite wretched.
For that reason, and no other, Worcestershire supporters will approach the last day of their championship match against Nottinghamshire with some trepidation. This really should be the game where Worcestershire end their horrendous record of results at New Road and secure their first Championship win of the season. They've not won here in Division One of the Championship since May 2004.
They've already squandered one opportunity to strike the fatal blow, however. At 223 for 3, with two batsmen well set, they had drawn level with Nottinghamshire's first innings total and had the chance to establish a match-winning lead.
Instead they collapsed. Through a combination of a tricky pitch, some fine bowling and some less than robust batting, Worcestershire lost their final seven wickets for 20 runs in just 48 balls. It left them just 20 ahead.
It was a decline that had seemed most improbable only minutes earlier. While batting was never comfortable, Moeen Ali and Alexei Kervezee had added 93 in 31 overs for their fourth-wicket, exercising fine judgement over which balls to leave and which to attack.
Moeen was especially impressive. While there were few of the elegant strokes that have come to characterise his batting, he looked secure outside off stump and, when the opportunity arose, attacked judiciously. Twice he skipped down the wicket to loft Samit Patel's left-arm spin over the top - once for four; once for six - and when the bowler retaliated with a flatter delivery, Moeen leant back and cut him through cover for four.
When he and Kervezee fell right before the new ball, however, Worcestershire suffered a sharp decline. First Kervezee was drawn into playing at one that left him, before Moeen edged one that was pushed onto him from Samit Patel.
From then on, Charlie Shreck dominated. Armed with the new ball, the 33-year-old Cornishman, ripped out the remaining batsmen in a 16-ball spell of four wickets for 15 runs. It was the 19th five-wicket haul of his career and his first since July 2008.
Shreck was never the quickest of seamers and, since the injuries began to mount a couple of years ago, he's lost a bit more pace than he could afford to lose.
But he was never going to miss out on conditions like this. Armed with the new ball and on a surface offering variable bounce and movement off the seam, Shreck delivered a probing line and length, defeating Ben Scott with one that kept low, Jack Shantry's hapless drive with one that swung back sharply and dismissed Neil Pinner to a return catch when the batsman adjusted to deal with Shreck's late swing.
The hosts are not out of this game, though. Nottinghamshire were soon reeling at 40 for 4 after Alan Richardson, also utilising the conditions expertly, claimed three early wickets. Akhil Patel and Mark Wagh edged deliveries that left them, while Adam Voges was trapped in front by one that kept horribly low.
Had Damien Wright - Worcestershire's leading wicket-taker - not limped off the field with a calf strain, the hosts could have made further inroads. As it was, however, the excellent Richardson lacked support and Nottinghamshire's sixth-wicket paid of Chris Read and Patel were able to stage a partial recovery. Their stand if currently worth 43. On this pitch, that's a highly valuable contribution.
Patel's batting stood out. The match, apparently an uneven battle between bat and ball when colleagues faced, was transformed when Patel was on strike. Lots of batsmen can shine on flat tracks; class shows in circumstances like this.
Wright, meanwhile, will undergo a scan and is most unlikely to take any further part in the game. Indeed, he may well have bowled his last ball for the club.
It might just have been Mark Wagh's final first-class innings, too. He is intending to retire in August but, after failing to pass 50 in 18 innings this season, there seems every chance the club might bring that date forward. Alex Hales is set to return to first team action for Friday's T20 match.
Still, either side could still win this game. Nottinghamshire's lead is only 84 and Worcestershire should be able to chase anything under 170. It promises to be an intriguing final day.
Meanwhile 'Shankargate' rumbles on. It has been suggested by some that Worcestershire should strip the disgraced Adrian Shankar of his club colours. And it's true he scarcely deserves to have his name listed along the likes of Kenyon, Hick, Flavell and Turner. It might, however, set a dangerous precedent. After all, the last time a player lied to the club about his age (Basil D'Oliveira), they named a stand after him. Sometimes it's better just to move on.