Lancashire cling on in edge-of-the-seat battle
Lancashire 259 for 6 (Croft 60) lead Middlesex 214 by 45 runs
Like mariners clinging to wreckage in the hope of eventual rescue, Lancashire's cricketers hoped to confound the logic of experience on the second day of this game.
For over five months grimly inadequate first-innings totals had led to them escaping from some games with soggy, miserable draws or losing others when doughty rearguards had failed to compensate for collective errors. Another such display of incompetence and Old Trafford officials would be making block hotel bookings in Leicester, Derby and Bristol. Very pleasant places to pitch one's tent, by Jove, but a swift return to the Division Two had been far from Lancastrian thoughts in green and carefree April.
Middlesex, though, were also in danger and Wednesday's play eventually became a game within a game as Glen Chapple's batsmen, 3-1 ahead on bonus points at the start of play, sought to extend that margin to three before turning their minds, bodies and hearts to winning the match itself and overtaking Chris Rogers' team
The result was an utterly wonderful day's cricket for partisans and neutrals alike, even though matters had not been resolved when the players left the field in the evening sunlight. After three sessions in which the two sides had scrapped unsparingly for the slightest advantage, Lancashire have a 45-run lead on first innings with four wickets in hand.
Far more significantly, though, both teams had picked up two more points and Lancashire must now score 41 runs off 14 overs without losing three more wickets if they are to go into the second half of this game with their hopes of victory and survival intact.
And, indeed, all this is pretty simple when set beside the situation just after tea when it was thought that Lancashire might declare on 250 for 5 and some wondered whether they would fall foul of the Declaration Monitor, who is not a bureaucratic ghoul from Kafka or Gogol, but an ECB worthy, in this case David Capel, dispatched to such September games as these to ensure that any closure is within the spirit of the game and not "extraordinary".
However, once the admirably pugnacious Steven Croft had been caught down the leg side for 60 to give the equally hard-working Toby Roland-Jones his third wicket of the day - the ball surely flicked only his clothes, by the way - the situation was simplified rather. Glen Chapple and Luke Procter's unbroken seventh-wicket partnership of 38 has now left matters deliciously poised on the penultimate day of what has truly been a county season to live for.
The morning's play had offered Lancashire supporters slightly unexpected encouragement that their top order batting might be able to establish a first innings lead in traditional fashion without worrying overly about declarations. Although the home side lost Paul Horton, lbw for 7 when half forward to a very straight delivery from Tim Murtagh, Luis Reece and Ashwell Prince calmly added 76 to leave Lancashire reasonably placed on 88 for 1 at the break.
Even in the first session, though, Middlesex's bowlers had beaten the bat sufficiently often to encourage them that the blue skies and clear air had not made batting a completely straightforward exercise. The afternoon's cricket proved the point much more clearly as an attack led very capably by Roland-Jones took four wickets while conceding only 77 runs.
Reece, having made a technically competent 45, shaped a drive at a full-length Roland-Jones delivery but only edged the ball to Dawid Malan at second slip although it was mighty close to a no-ball. Four overs later the same bowler grabbed the vital wicket of Prince, who seemed to stop a drive yet only scooped the ball to Rogers at mid-on.
Middlesex's best period of the game was concluded when Karl Brown inside edged James Harris onto his stumps for 13, a sad end for a batsman who once timed the ball so well, yet now, in four-day cricket at least, sometimes gives one the impression that he is trying to bat when wearing someone else's spectacles.
Those three wickets left Lancashire on 118 for 4 and the gloom-mongers in the pavilion were probably doing a fair trade. But Jos Buttler added 42 with Croft before he was lbw to slow left- armer Ravi Patel for 23 and it was left to Procter and Croft, two veterans of another memorable September afternoon - Taunton 2011, "a date phrased like a vintage" - to add 61 for the sixth-wicket against a Middlesex attack astutely skippered by Rogers.
As for the third morning, Lancashire will hope to establish as big a lead as possible without losing their ninth wicket inside 110 overs. Then, having seen Patel get a good measure of turn from the Old Trafford pitch, Simon Kerrigan and Croft will hope to exploit the widening cracks in the wicket to put their opponents under the sort of pressure they have rarely encountered.