David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
Derbyshire 390 and 268 for 5 (Critchley 84, Madsen 66) lead Worcestershire 305 (Fell 69, Wessels 60, Critchley 5-67) by 353 runs
"What's the point of Derbyshire?" is a question asked so often by their critics that it should become an option for a philosophy exam alongside such staples as "Do we have free will", "What's the meaning of life", and "If you try to fail but succeed which have you actually done?"
Anticipation is growing that the answer to "What's the point of Derbyshire?" lies in the figure of Matt Critchley. He is three days into one of the finest individual performances in Derbyshire's history, a performance that was on the verge of something quite remarkable only to falter at the last.
Derbyshire's admirable statistician, David Griffin, was last seen feverishly trying to unearth whether Critchley had fallen 16 runs short of joining an exclusive list of county cricketers in history to make a century in each innings as well as take five wickets in between. Franklyn Stephenson did it for Nottinghamshire in 1988 and achieved the double in the process, but it is a very small list.
If the feat would have been remarkable, its foundering was an anti-climax as he fell prey to an innocent little inswinger from Daryl Mitchell that bowled him through the gate.
Critchley's legspin remains central to Derbyshire's attempts to dismiss Worcestershire on the final day which may mean Griffin's work is not yet done. We are not yet sure what the question will be but the odds are that the answer will be Garnet Lee, a recruit from Nottinghamshire a century or so ago, who specialized in great all-round feats.
Derbyshire was rightly portrayed by Matthew Engel in Engel's England, a delightful character study of the 39 counties, as a mix of self-sufficiency and eccentricity. It is that hallmark that has helped them survive; the game is cherished whatever hostility rears up elsewhere. The spectator who showed up at the main gate on the opening day, in defiance of Covid regulations, and demanded to be allowed in because he had just become a member, added to the folklore. It is a shame that he and many others have missed Critchley's grand show.
Derbyshire finished the third day with a formidable lead of 353 with five wickets remaining. If an enterprising stand of 129 in 27 overs between Critchley and Wayne Madsen had raced ahead a little longer that lead would have been 400 and an overnight declaration would have been inevitable.
But before Mitchell silenced Critchley he had also had Madsen lbw and, with the captain, Billy Godleman, resting a groin injury, conservatism crept into Derbyshire's approach: 59 in the last 20 overs with Worcestershire there for the taking. Mitchell spared Worcestershire, who bowled a lot of dross.
Critchley began the day by completing his five-for, having Ed Barnard caught at slip and bowling Alzarri Joseph. In between, he dropped Joseph in front of square - a good, diving effort - and caught Joe Leach at cover. It was already clear that he would remain the centre of attention.
Derbyshire's initial efforts to build on their 85-run lead were sporadic. Two blows on the hand for Leus du Plooy were evidence of occasional uneven bounce from the Racecourse End of the ground which could serve Derbyshire well on the final day. The injury to Godleman was stranger, a couple of bouts of treatment for a tweaked groin, followed by prolonged discussions with the umpires, in which he presumably received assurances that he could retire "not out". He did just that, and never needed to return.
County cricket's lengthy tribute to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh - a minute's silence to begin an 80-minute stoppage, including tea - meant that it was 4.10pm before the day began to take shape.
That coincided with the alliance between Critchley and Madsen, who set about Worcestershire's attack with relish. Critchley's emphatic pull through mid-on against Barnard pronounced that here was a batsman in form. He then hit Dillon Pennington for two successive leg-side sixes, the first of them (when he was 20) carried over by Tom Fell.
Brett D'Oliveira's inconsequential legspin was greeted by a reverse sweep which took Critchley to a domineering 43-ball half-century, but that was just a precursor to the larks during an over in which D'Oliveira was reverse-swept five times (three by Madsen, two by Critchley), with only Critchley's studious forward push to the fourth delivery restoring decorum, appeasing traditionalists and saving Griffin from a question that even he would not have been able to answer.
Critchley still perceives himself as a bowling allrounder, but that perception might subtly shift as the season takes shape. "I see bowling as my job and just enjoy batting as much as I can," he said. "I work hard on both and I want to influence the game every time I get involved but it was more pleasing to get my five-for and I get more satisfaction out of the wickets."
There was a time when England debuts could be won by virtue of a single performance or tour spots claimed on the back of a late-season Lord's final. Not so often now, and certainly not in Derbyshire where news does not always travel fast.
That sense of isolation suited the likes of John Ruskin who once raged about a railway line across the Peak District, now closed: "The valley is gone and the Gods with it, and now, every fool in Bakewell can be at Buxton in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton."
Critchley, although he appears to be a modest sort, would doubtless love a fast track to England recognition and, if he continues to play with such elan against stiffer opposition than Worcestershire he will one day achieve just that.