Richardson's six sends Lancashire crashing
Worcestershire 237 and 5 for 0 beat Lancashire 161 and 80 by 10 wickets
Lancashire have put themselves in contention to win the County Championship by being in some ways a team greater than the sum of its parts, winning eight matches by pooling their resources more effectively than rivals with more obvious stand-out performers. Above all, their asset has been character and it is that quality that will come under close scrutiny now.
They were beaten here by 10 wickets in a day and a half, having batted poorly in both innings. The result, built around a valiant near-century by James Cameron and the excellence of veteran seamer Alan Richardson, who finished with 6 for 22, not only makes the race for the title even more of a close-run battle but gives Worcestershire every chance of avoiding relegation at Yorkshire's expense.
Given that they began the season as every pundit's favourite to go back to Division Two, their achievement deserves almost as much attention as Lancashire's apparent attack of the jitters although inevitably it will not be given it.
The fact is that Glen Chapple's side began this round as title favourites but will end it having been knocked off the top of the Division One table and possibly down to third place. Warwickshire - perhaps even Durham, though they have only one match to go after the current round - will look at their own chance with fresh enthusiasm.
Lancashire picked off the last four Worcestershire wickets in the first hour, Chapple himself - showing no sign of the knee problem that had kept him off the field for part of the previous afternoon - taking three after Kyle Hogg had broken the key partnership between and Cameron and Ben Scott at 97 when the wicketkeeper edged a wideish ball to his Lancashire counterpart. Richard Jones was lbw offering no stroke before Cameron, having reached 98, was rather cruelly denied his hundred, bowled by one of several balls at the Diglis End that kept low. Kemar Roach followed him in quite quickly after another straight ball beat his optimistic swing.
Worcestershire's lead of 76 looked handy but Lancashire nonetheless would have expected to set themselves something relatively testing for the last innings. Instead, they were dismissed for 80 in just over 30 overs, the end coming just before 3pm. It is their lowest all-out total since Glamorgan dismissed them for 51 at Liverpool in 1997.
Richardson, who is enjoying the most productive season of his career at 36, followed Chapple's example of bowling full and straight and Lancashire's batsmen, gripped by a combination of impatience and panic, succumbed one after another, whether by failing to move their feet, playing back when they should have been forward, or else just swinging carelessly across the line. Five of his six wickets were leg-before.
Roach, the West Indian fast bowler whose pace only added to Lancashire's jitters, bowled Chapple and Saj Mahmood with two frighteningly quick deliveries, claiming a third victim when Hogg, who had hit him a few meaty blows in the first innings, stepped back in search of another but was again beaten for pace.
Stephen Moore, the Lancashire opener, was absent, attending the birth of his first child in Manchester at the very moment his teammates were falling apart. But even Peter Moores, the Lancashire coach, admitted it would have been unlikely he would have made much difference.
"I don't know what difference Stephen would have made but babies take precedence over cricket matches and quite rightly so," Moores said. "He has had a little girl and we are delighted for him. There was never a dilemma over whether he would stay because family comes first.
"It is disappointing result obviously but we batted poorly on both innings. We did not score enough runs in either to create any kind of pressure and there can be no complaints. The pitch had a little bit in it, a little bit uneven in bounce, but we lost five wickets to full straight balls which you cannot afford to do, especially in the top six.
"But like the defeat in the Twenty20 semi-final last weekend, we have to take it on the chin. We will scrub ourselves up and prepare for next week. We have two matches left and if we win both I think we will win the title. Win one and we are in the frame. We will find out over the next two games if we have the character to do it."
Lancashire's batting was collectively bad and while Moores backed away from coming down hard on his own players - in public, at any rate - he must have despaired at their lack of application and times and his assessment of Cameron's performance said plenty.
"He showed what could be done. He played himself in, didn't play and miss an awful lot and didn't get hit on the pad an awful lot. He showed the right game for that pitch and can take pride in the fact that, batting wise, he was the difference between the sides."
Richardson, meanwhile, having raised his tally to 62 wickets for the Championship season confirmed the view of pitch liaison officer Jack Birkenshaw that only negligible blame could be attached to the behaviour of the track.
"I have played on a lot worse wickets this year, a lot more bowler friendly at least," he said. "It did a little bit and maybe the odd one stayed down but in general I thought it was a really good wicket, certainly not a day and a half wicket."
"We did not see that coming this morning, for sure, and I was a bit surprised that Lancashire crumbled as they did because they have shown a lot of fight this season but it was just one of those days when we bowled well and it all clicked."
The Staffordshire-born seamer reckons Worcestershire have earned the right now to determine their own fate after putting clear daylight between themselves and next-to-bottom Yorkshire.
"We set out this season to be as competitive as possible and apart from in a couple of games we really have been competitive," he said. "We have surprised some people, given some teams a bit of a fright and we have scraped together four wins. The fact that we are two games from the end and not in the relegation zone is a reflection of how well we have played."
At both ends of the table, at this stage what lies ahead is as much a test of nerve as technique. Lancashire, under pressure every season to stop the constant reminders of how long it is since they last won the Championship - 1934 in their own right, 1950 when they shared it with Surrey - must now prove that theirs is strong enough. Hampshire are their next opponents, at Liverpool next week, followed by Somerset at Taunton in the final round.