Nottinghamshire win brings title close
Nottinghamshire 261 for 7 and 203 for 5 dec beat v Lancashire 319 and 143 for 1 dec by three wickets
Nottinghamshire took a giant stride towards winning their sixth County Championship and a second in six seasons after Lancashire's desperate attempt to keep their own outside chance alive offered Chris Read's side a route to victory that they were able to complete ultimately in relative comfort.
Set to chase 260 in a minimum 64 overs, Nottinghamshire eased home with eight overs and four balls to spare and now have a 16-point lead over Somerset, who themselves sit three in front of Yorkshire. Crucially, the Trent Bridge side have three matches to go, against two for their rivals. It is difficult to see them being caught.
After the loss of the whole of day three to rain, with Nottinghamshire trailing by 141 runs and their first innings still in progress, a draw had looked inevitable, given that only Lancashire had any real desire to take risks.
But, alive to what their visitors might have in mind, Read spoke to his players about how they might respond to any challenge Lancashire might offer and found them willing to look beyond chasing bonus points on the final day.
So it was that Read declared as soon as Nottinghamshire had passed 200, trailing by 116 runs, before spending an hour and a half in the field as Lancashire added 143 in 24 overs by lunch in order to meet the terms of the deal struck between captains. It was a throwback to the days of contrived finishes in three-day cricket and some spectators were less than approving as part-timers Alex Hales and Ally Brown shared a dozen overs with Ryan Sidebottom and Andre Adams cooling their heels in the outfield. But the end result was surely compensation.
No one earned approval, in the end, more than Hales, the 21-year-old opening batsman, who had the misfortune to be out in the 90s twice in the same day but nonetheless produced two innings of maturity under as much pressure as he will have encountered so far in his career and was generously applauded.
He missed out on a first-innings hundred, which would have been his second of the season, agonisingly by two runs as the only wicket to fall before the Nottinghamshire declaration, undone by a rising delivery from Kyle Hogg that flew to wicketkeeper Luke Sutton off the shoulder of the bat as he sought to defend.
He had come through a difficult spell against the new ball on Wednesday and having batted for the best part of four hours, hitting 16 fours, he will have felt he deserved a better fate, although his disappointment looked to be even greater when, a couple of sessions later, he perished on 93, caught behind again as the spinner, Gary Keedy, turned one away to find the edge as Hales went to drive.
Read, however, had no doubt that Hales had come a long way with the two knocks. "All credit to him," Read said. "He is a fantastic cricketer who is going places and his contributions today were vital.
"I'm sure he will be disappointed not to have scored two hundreds in the game that would have been exceptionally well deserved but I'm sure he is thrilled also to have done so much to help us get over the line. Although he has had a terrific season, in the last three or four weeks he has not scored many runs and things like that can affect players and this was a pressure game yet he really stood up."
The worry for Read was that the pitch, which had been prone to variable bounce throughout, would make a last-day chase difficult and considered their agreement to chase at four an over to be riskier than it might have looked.
The manner of Paul Horton's dismissal to a ball from Steven Mullaney that barely bounced seemed to justify his concerns and when Nottinghamshire slipped to 23 for 2, with Matthew Wood caught at backward point and Mark Wagh snapped up superbly by Tom Smith at second slip, Lancashire found quick encouragement.
Had Keedy held a simple catch at long leg when Samit Patel, on one, clipped Saj Mahmood in the air, Nottinghamshire would have been 24 for 3. Patel looked as though he would hit four or be out with almost every stroke but the positive approach paid off as he and Hales added 86 in 16 overs before a Mahmood grubber took out Patel's off stump.
His departure heralded the arrival of Brown, at 40 almost twice Hales's age, and it was their partnership that banished Lancashire's hopes. Hales played superbly at times, reaching his half-century off 57 balls with seven fours and adding a couple more with two fine cuts backward of square off Glen Chapple.
When tea arrived, the target was down to 126 from 33 overs with still seven wickets in hand. There were some wobbles to come. After Hales went, Read was rather uncharacteristically rash, going down the track to Keedy and skying a catch to cover, at which point still 61 were needed, enough for Lancashire to sniff a renewed opportunity.
Then, after Brown had fallen to another good slip catch by Smith, Paul Franks edged his first ball to Horton at first slip. But Mullaney, against the county he left last winter, and playing only because of the vacancy created by David Hussey's return to Australia and Adam Voges's delayed arrival, had plainly decided this was his moment.
There was certainly the hint of a swagger after he had hit Keedy over the top for six, and a flurry of boundaries - four-four-six - against Chapple brought the requirement down to less than 20.
Adams, whom might have been caught off his first ball from Hogg, got off the mark with a pulled four in the same over and it was his square drive to the boundary off Chapple that completed the job.
Nottinghamshire have confirmed that four counties - Hampshire, Worcestershire, Surrey and Sussex - submitted the formal 28-days' notice of approach for England bowler Ryan Sidebottom before he announced on Thursday that he was leaving Trent Bridge.
Another player moving on is Luke Sutton, Lancashire's 33-year-old wicketkeeper of the last five seasons, who has not been offered a new contract at Old Trafford and, barring injury to his successor, Gareth Cross, has played his last match for the county.