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Jon Culley at Headingley
July 23, 2011
Lancashire 328 and 194 beat Yorkshire 239 and 260 by 23 runs
The way cricket is marketed these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the game consisted only of international matches and Twenty20, which does great injustice to the real bedrock of the English professional game, the County Championship.
Outside Test matches, there is no competition capable of producing cricket more compelling; rich in ebbs and flows, subtleties, nuances and - most importantly - the element of unpredictability without which any sport is dull. If the men in suits really could distil its qualities into 20 overs-a-side, they really would have a product they could sell. Alas, it is an impossible task.
And so, one suspects, the Championship will continue to produce more occasions like this Roses match, wonderfully watchable from start to finish but played out, however much we talk about good turnouts (in county cricket terms), before many more empty seats than filled ones.
The main scoreboard here was out of order, which does not help correct the impression that Championship audiences are not really seen as a priority group, yet it was a privilege, nonetheless, to witness a denouement to the match as absorbing as its three-day build-up.
It ended with a narrow victory for Lancashire that will lead inevitably to excitement west of the Pennines. Should Glen Chapple's team beat Nottinghamshire at Southport next week, they will confront the growing threat from Warwickshire at Liverpool the following week in top place in the First Division.
This win is their seventh in 10 matches, a record unmatched by them at the corresponding point in any season in the current Championship format. They have played one fewer game than leaders Durham, whose advantage, for the moment at least, is down to five points.
The last day here showed Lancashire can keep their nerve, which is also a valuable quality. They began as favourites with Yorkshire on 136 for 6, still needing 148 to win, but still faced a difficult morning if the last innings was to follow the pattern of the second and third.
Indeed, Yorkshire ran them close enough to be a shade disappointed not to have won after Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad became the third ninth-wicket pair in the match to make the biggest partnership of their innings.
Things began well for Lancashire as Yorkshire lost nightwatchman Ryan Sidebottom and captain Andrew Gale during a fine opening spell from Chapple. Sidebottom edged a drive to second slip and Gale picked up a habit too often undermining his side at the moment by failing to move his feet enough to avoid a leg before. The target at this point was still more than 100 runs.
But then Rashid batted superbly, mixing the lovely, wristy shots that are his strength in his better days with some decisive blocking. With the support of Shahzad, the ninth wicket added 53. The total runs made by ninth-wicket pairs in this match - bolstered considerably of course by the record 154 put on by Sidebottom and Rich Pyrah - is 297.
As the requirement reduced, with time was not a factor, the pressure began to build on Lancashire. Yet at this point seamers Kyle Hogg and Saj Mahmood responded with impressive discipline, answering the need of their captain to stem the tide of runs.
Their response followed cheers from the Yorkshire supporters, who sensed an improbable victory - their team had, after all, been 45 for 8 in the first innings before Sidebottom and Pyrah got to work - as Rashid steered a ball from Mahmood through vacant gully for his sixth four. But the next 29 balls yielded only two singles and frustration began to mount for the batsmen.
Shahzad crashed a ball from Hogg to the fence but, faced with a short delivery, he was lured into hooking and paid the price, gloving a catch that wicketkeeper Gareth Cross leaped goalkeeper-style to claim.
Even with Yorkshire nine down, still 54 short, Lancashire could not consider themselves home, not with Pyrah in at number 11. The first innings centurion helped Rashid reach lunch, the target down to 40.
With the second new ball nine overs away, Yorkshire had to step up their pursuit and Chapple, less tidy, conceded six in an over twice. But in the end it was the old ball, in the hands of left-arm spinner Gary Keedy, that inflicted the fatal, final wound, as Pyrah played back, missed and stood in horror for a moment at the realisation that he had gone, leg before, and his immense contribution to the match, in the end, was not enough.
"When it got down to 25 needed it could have gone either way but we stuck at it, kept believing," Chapple said afterwards.
"I always thought it would be close on evidence of first three days. It was set up for the tail enders when the ball got soft. It was slightly in our favour, 148 to get with four wickets left, but only just, with their batting line-up."
Chapple agreed that few pundits had foreseen a challenge from Lancashire this year but felt his slide had been under-rated. "We know we are a competitive team with some great characters in the ranks," he said. "People made assumptions that we did not have high quality but that is just due to the records not being there - we have no 35-year-old batsman who has 20,000 runs at 50.
"But we prepare as well as we can with the right, positive mindset and I'm delighted with where we are. I don't think it is a matter of players having to step up to the plate without any established big players to rely on.
"For the last two seasons I have never once questioned the effort of our lads, even when they had players with serious records around them. I think what has happened is that those players have simply developed over the last couple of years as quality cricketers.
"We can improve in certain areas but we have strengths and they will work at their game and get stuck in and I'm delighted with what they have given me. We'll have to wait until the end to judge how good this season is but I'm really pleased with where we are."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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