September 8, 2012

The party is over for Lancashire

Paul Edwards
After Lancashire won the 2011 County Championship, a member of the Old Trafford staff bought a copy of every national daily newspaper. Relegation means there will be no repeat this year

Early on the morning after Lancashire won the 2011 County Championship, the first time they had won the title outright for 77 years, a member of the Old Trafford staff nipped out of Taunton's Castle Hotel and bought a copy of every national daily newspaper. He then opened them out in what had become the team room, with the reports of the previous day's cricket uppermost. They made quite a show apparently and the players appreciated the gesture.

There will be no such displays of pride and achievement over the next few days. These are the times when professional sportsmen avoid the media and instead seek out family and close friends who love them for who they are, not what they do. For the headlines can be imagined: "Heroes to Zeroes… Champions to Chumpions… Top of the pile to bottom of the heap…" Welcome to the pitiless kingdom of the relegated, Lancashire, welcome to Division Two.

Before long, though, there will need to be a detailed analysis of why a team that was heading down the Mall to meet Prince Philip last October will be making its way to Wantage Road at some point next summer.

The analysis has already begun usefully with neither Peter Moores nor Glen Chapple blaming the weather for Lancashire's plight. Lancastrian moans about the rain elicit little but laughter around the country, and are likely to attract outright derision if repeated this year.

All counties have been affected by some pretty dreadful weather in 2012: Yorkshire have lost 13 full days of first-class cricket and the county's recent match against Glamorgan was their first uninterrupted four-day game, yet Andrew Gale's fine team may well be promoted next week. Lancashire's matches enjoyed good weather last summer, yet few pundits suggested that as the prime reason why the title was secured. It wasn't the sun what won it in 2011.

Only in one particular respect can it be argued that the location of the jet stream was a factor in Lancashire's relegation: the absence of any dry hot spells led to a dearth of pitches that made the selection of two spinners the obvious tactical option. Simon Kerrigan has played in all but one Championship game and has taken 44 wickets, but only in three matches has the England Lion operated in tandem with Gary Keedy, whose complementary skills helped the pair to take 85 wickets in 2011.

The riposte to this, of course, is that Kerrigan himself only played four games last season, but Keedy's presence and support would have been invaluable this year in helping a young spinner who, at the age of 23, still has much to learn. (Bowling to left-handers is just one area where Kerrigan is still honing his craft.) Instead, the veteran spinner was largely confined to offering advice from the sidelines.

Asked to name the best bowlers on Lancashire's staff, most regular supporters would probably plump for Chapple, Keedy and Kerrigan, and in 2012 it would have been helpful if all three had played together in the same side on a regular basis. That said, when the Old Trafford pitch for the Worcestershire game turned so much that a pitch panel had to be convened, Lancashire still managed to omit Keedy for a match where his skills would have been vital. That was a blunder that the visitors did not copy. Moeen Ali and Shaaiq Choudhry spun Worcestershire, Lancashire's eventual relegation companions, to their one win of the season.

Ultimately, though, it is the players who were picked who must take the responsibility for Lancashire's fate, and here the blame can be evenly apportioned. For example, the failure of Kyle Hogg and the other members of the seam attack to find anything like their best form prevented Lancashire from dominating teams early in the campaign, when three defeats in their first four games, at the hands of Sussex, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire, reminded them that the title wasn't so much a crown as a coconut.

In 2011, Hogg's ability to find swing and seam earned him exactly 50 wickets in 11 matches; in 2012 he has so far taken 18 in 13 appearances and in only 65 fewer overs. Ajmal Shahzad, brought in on loan after he fell out with Yorkshire, has taken 20 wickets and Luke Procter 18, but at few points in the season has Lancashire's pace attack carried anything like the potency of 2011. Instead it has been left up to the indomitable Chapple, who is one of six players to have appeared in every game and has taken 42 wickets.

In 2011, Lancashire's seam attack was composed of four fairly regular members: Chapple, Hogg, Tom Smith and Sajid Mahmood . Of those four, Smith has been injured for a large part of the season, while Mahmood lost form completely and went on loan to Somerset.

But if Lancashire's bowling has sometimes been anaemic this season, some of the batting has been positively diseased. On at least four occasions the top and middle order have suffered the sort of sessions that lose first-class matches. No one has epitomised this more than poor Stephen Moore, who failed to make a half-century in 20 innings and who was eventually dropped when his 348 runs had yielded an average of 17.40. In prime form in limited-overs cricket, where he passed 50 ten times in 21 visits, Moore must have come to dread the four-day stuff. "White ball, good; red ball, bad" could have been his Orwellian motto.

Peter Moores is one of the best coaches in the world: he steadfastly refuses to criticise players in public, yet rumours persist that he needs no lessons from the other Old Trafford supremo in handing out well-merited bollockings

Other batsmen underperformed too and some techniques were exposed in this seamers' summer. Paul Horton and Steven Croft made two centuries and two fifties apiece. In the professional's argot, they are "proper batsmen", but like the lavishly talented Karl Brown they have sometimes been guilty of giving their wickets away too easily. The resilience of Ashwell Prince has thrown the errors of his colleagues into even sharper relief; the image of the compact South African quelling a bowler's power and punching the ball through the field is one of the pleasanter memories Lancashire supporters might retain from the 2012 season. There are unlikely to be many others.

And yet, while the simplistic explanation that Lancashire didn't bat or bowl well enough in 2012 may go some way to explaining the onset of gloom in the cricketing heartlands west of the Pennines, perhaps the best means of understanding the team's relegation is to consider it in the context of the Championship triumph 12 months ago.

Lancashire's young players overachieved in 2011: surfing a tide of frequent victories and emboldened by the belief that it was, at last, their year, they played cricket of a quality that probably surprised their coaches and certainly amazed their supporters. The euphoria of Taunton served to disguise the fact that these still-young Lancastrians - Smith, Brown, Croft, Kerrigan, Procter, Gareth Cross - are works in progress.

The Old Trafford side goes down having lost just one match more than it did in 2011, when regular triumphs served to obscure obvious deficiencies. Barely a fortnight before Taunton, Lancashire lost in a day and a half to a Worcestershire side inspired by the resilience of James Cameron and the skill of Alan Richardson. "This lot can't win the title!" scoffed the spectators at New Road. But they could and they did. Now comes the reckoning.

One of the comforting things for Lancashire supporters to ponder this rather grim weekend is that Peter Moores knows his players inside out. He understands that they experienced success early and that now they must come to terms with something else entirely. "It's all part of it," is the deceptively simple phrase he uses to describe the business of being a professional cricketer. The triumphs of one September are comprehended more deeply in the context of the disappointments of another.

Moores accepts that his players are inconsistent, but he is not about to give up on them, and the indications are that the county will continue to place its faith largely in home-grown talent. One hopes that Lancashire supporters will be pleased by that too. Moores is one of the best coaches in the world: he steadfastly refuses to criticise individual cricketers in public, yet rumours persist that he needs no lessons from the other Old Trafford supremo in handing out well-merited bollockings. There is a sense that he has faith in this core group of players to get Lancashire out of Division Two. He should certainly be given the chance to prove his case.

A week on Monday, Lancashire hold their Player of the Year Dinner. It is unlikely to be a barnburner. Yet for all that it is a black-tie affair, it is unlikely to be a wake either. The main award will surely go to either Prince or Chapple, although physio Sam Byrne should receive some sort of accolade for ensuring that the 39-year-old skipper has not missed a four-day game this summer.

Inevitably, the talk will be of "bouncing back at the first attempt" and there may also be recollections of close matches - Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, for example - when "we just didn't get the breaks". That is probably fair enough. Most professionals know that you need the little things to go for you if you are to win things, and that the consequences can be grisly when they don't.

More encouragingly still, there is unlikely to be any of the internecine strife with which the club was riven only a few decades ago. There are some deeply decent people at Old Trafford - chief executive Jim Cumbes, academy director John Stanworth, and match manager Ken Grime to name but three - and everyone knows that getting out of Division Two will be another challenge. They had better be up for it.