Lancashire refute pitch claims after big win
Lancashire 159 (Azharullah 4-42) and 73 for 2 beat Northamptonshire 62 (Hogg 7-27, Chapple 3-34) and 169 (Hall 55, Murphy 50, Procter 4-39) by eight wickets
Lancashire have dismissed criticism of the pitch at Old Trafford after wrapping up a convincing eight-wicket victory over Northamptonshire, their main rivals in Division Two, inside two days.
The victory, achieved with three overs remaining after they took an extra half hour to finish the game, reduced Northamptonshire's lead at the top of the table to 17 points having played a game more, but it was a triumph marred by controversy over the state of the wicket.
Despite Jack Birkenshaw, the ECB pitch inspector, clearing the surface after concluding that high-quality seam bowling and average batting were the contributory factors to 18 wickets falling on the opening day, it was not a verdict that satisfied David Smith, Northamptonshire's chief executive.
Smith, who was at Old Trafford for the opening day, claimed the wicket was "akin to an out-ground and a poor one at that" in an interview with the Northamptonshire Telegraph. "What level of preparation went into this wicket?" he said. "We can only guess but it looked underprepared and the scorecard supports this view."
The controversial surface lies several away on the square from that being prepared for the third Ashes Test, which starts on August 1.
Mike Watkinson, Lancashire's director of cricket, not surprisingly disagreed with Smith's verdict, despite the same pitch being marked as sub-standard last year against Worcestershire. On that occasion Lancashire escaped with a warning because the square had only recently been turned as part of the ground's re-development.
"Jack Birkenshaw has been here on behalf of the ECB during preparation time for the game and for the entire match and in his opinion it has been swnging ball, climatic conditions and poor batting that has led to the wickets," said Watkinson.
"I don't think there has been anything sinister from the pitch. We had the first day of a Championship match which was played 80 percent of the day under floodlights and the temperature at 25 degrees with extreme humidity and the ball swinging around corners."
Certainly conditions for batting had improved on the second morning, with the sun attempting to break through the cloud cover, enabling Tom Smith to hit an unbeaten 35 and secure a crucial 97-run first-innings lead.
For long periods of Northamptonshire's reply it appeared they would suffer a humiliating innings defeat well inside two days, with Glen Chapple's new-ball partnership wtih Kyle Hogg once again proving productive. They combined to make an early breakthrough when Kyle Coetzer mistimed a defensive shot against Hogg that looped to Chapple at mid-on.
Chapple followed up with a full length delivery that seamed back into David Sales and knocked back his off-stump and James Middlebrook fell to the next ball, shuffling across his stumps to fall lbw to Hogg. At that stage, Lancashire had claimed their last 26 Championship wickets for only 109 runs, with their in-form opening pair claiming all but two.
At least Northamptonshire resisted long enough this time to force Lancashire into a bowling change for the first time in 59.1 Championship overs, when left-arm spinners Simon Kerrigan and Stephen Parry, both selected to try and exploit a dry surface, were finally utilised shortly before lunch.
Instead of having a major impact, a new pair of Lancashire seamers effectively ended Northamptonshire's resistance, with Luke Procter and Tom Smith inducing a mini-collapse of four wickets for 45 runs in 12 overs after lunch. Two of those dismissals were self-induced, with Steven Crook chipping Procter to midwicket and David Willey mistiming to mid-on.
When David Murphy joined Andrew Hall at the crease for the start of Northamptonshire's eighth-wicket partnership, they were still trailing by 17 runs but demonstrated that sensible batting could prosper by both scoring half-centuries and forging an 89-run stand, the biggest of the match on either side.
They batted together for 31 overs but in sight of setting a potentially testing target for Lancashire to chase in the final innings, they lost wickets in a cluster once again, the last three falling in only eight balls to leave a modest victory chase of 73. Despite losing Procter to the third ball of the reply, edging Willey down the leg side, Lancashire sealed their victory with plenty of time to spare and close the gap on Northamptonshire.
Their coach, David Ripley, was less critical of the surface than Smith but he wasn't impressed with the performance of his batsmen on the second day when conditions eased. "My personal view of the pitch was that if it was a little below par on the first day, it was genuine," he said.
"On day one I had a lot of sympathy against two good bowlers in seamer-friendly conditions and it was tough. I was actually more disappointed today because I thought the wicket was a lot easier and we had two guys really dig in for us and make a substantial partnership but no other partnerships."