Lancashire v Warwickshire, Liverpool, 3rd day August 3, 2011

Croft ton shares limelight with Clarke's catching

Jon Culley at Aigburth

Lancashire 189 and 374 for 9 v Warwickshire 280

It was a day with two outstanding figures, one of them, unusually, a fielder. Steven Croft's first century for three years - only the second of the all-rounder's career in first-class cricket - had the most influence on the match, putting Lancashire in a position from which at least they ought not to lose. Yet for those with a fascination for records, the man of the moment was Rikki Clarke.

The 29-year-old all-rounder, whose accomplishments with bat and ball have earned him two Test caps and 20 one-day international appearances, also has a reputation as a fine slip fielder and upheld it here by equalling the record for the number of catches by an outfielder in a single innings.

By holding seven out of seven offered as Warwickshire's bowlers stuck to their task on a pitch that flattened out under a hot sun, Clarke matched the number by Surrey's Mickey Stewart against Northamptonshire at Wantage Road in 1957 and equalled by Tony Brown of Gloucestershire against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 1966.

Clarke, fielding at second slip, took five catches off Warwickshire's seamers -- two after the second new ball was taken -- and another two fielding to the off-spinner Jeetan Patel, the last involving a dash from leg slip to get under a top-edged slog-sweep from Saj Mahmood.

Having already taken two catches in the first innings, he became one of only two outfielders in the history of the first-class game to hold nine in a match, the other being the former England captain Wally Hammond, another specialist slip, who caught 10 for Gloucestershire against Surrey at Cheltenham in 1928.

Had he not dropped what looked a relatively easy chance offered by Stephen Moore in Lancashire's first innings, he would have been rubbing figurative shoulders with the legendary Hammond already but as it is he still has one more chance after Lancashire closed on 374 for 9.

Modesty dissuaded Clarke from crowing, however. "I can't take too much credit because the bowlers toiled away on a decent wicket with the sun out and got the edges," he said. "It is my job to catch them. It has been a match that has been strange because most of the catches have gone to second slip and I happened to be there for us.

"Sometimes they stick and sometimes they don't and in this game more have stuck than haven't. I was most pleased with the one off Stephen Moore in the second innings because that one absolutely flew and I was lucky to get a hand on it let alone catch it. I was disappointed not to catch him in the first innings but that one moved in the air so it was tough."

Really, though, it was Croft who did most to shape the position of the match, his career-best-equalling 122 helping Lancashire to a lead of 283 going into the final day and addressing the concerns of some Lancashire supporters as Glen Chapple's team seeks to end the county's title drought that too few batsmen are delivering substantial scores.

Croft, a 24-year-old all-rounder from Blackpool, who went in with Lancashire 84 for 3, which was a difficult moment given that they were still seven runs in arrears. Warwickshire, who began the match in third place, are no less eager to forge a result and they had made good progress after Clarke's first catch ended an opening partnership of 57 when Paul Horton edged a delivery from Neil Carter from low on the bat.

Moore soon followed in an attempt to fend off a rising ball from Boyd Rankin and then Mark Chilton edged a drive off Chris Woakes. But Croft and Karl Brown fought back superbly, holding the innings together for three hours in which an edge dropped by wicketkeeper Tim Ambrose when Brown was on 46 was the only proper chance offered until, bizarrely, Croft was almost ran out on 98.

He called for a quick single after pushing Patel to mid on but wound up diving full length as Laurie Evans aimed at the stumps from long-on, then scrambling to his feet to take an extra run on the overthrow to reach his hundred.

Croft offered half a chance to Will Porterfield at gully on 110 off Keith Barker, who must have thought his luck was really out when the Lancashire batsman then hit a weary drive that fell just short of Jim Troughton at mid-off. In fact, he was out in the same over, Barker finding an edge he had earned as Clarke pouched victim number four.

Lancashire lost Tom Smith when Patel - preferred here to Shivnarine Chanderpaul, in effect (although the West Indian would have started the match with only a few hours' sleep had he played) - took his first wicket of the match and then Brown, who was only nine short of a century of his own when he was undone by a lifter from Rankin and Clarke made it six out of six.

Gareth Cross and Glen Chapple both perished in the slog but Lancashire's advantage looks big enough on a pitch not likely to play easily on the last day. Any morning moisture will bring swing back into play and there is enough turn and bounce for left-arm spinner Gary Keedy to anticipate a productive afternoon.

The questions to be answered then, on a potentially enthralling last day, are whether Clarke can get his 10th and whether Lancashire's bowlers have time to get their 10 and step up the pressure on leaders Durham.