Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
Lancashire 141 (Abbas 5-48, Barker 4-51) and 198 for 9 (Vilas 47*, Crane 5-41) beat Hampshire 143 and 193 (Vince 69, Bailey 7-37) by one wicket
Lancashire did all they could at Liverpool today. Tomorrow they will find out if it was enough.
The one-wicket victory of Dane Vilas' side over Hampshire diced, sliced and pureed the nerves of all who witnessed it yet none of them would have missed it for a moment. Seemingly strolling to the win that would have ended their opponents hopes of winning the title for the first time since 1973, Lancashire collapsed from 151 for 4 to 194 for 9 in 17 quite deranged overs.
That left them two runs short of their target while Hampshire required one more wicket for the title. Matt Parkinson defended two balls from Mason Crane, who bowled magnificently to take 5 for 41 on this final afternoon, and Vilas swept Liam Dawson to the square-leg boundary to end the game.
And yet, should Warwickshire defeat Somerset at Edgbaston on the final day of the County Championship season, Lancashire will have to settle for a runners-up spot and a place in next week's Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord's. It may be seen as a poor reward for a season's effort from a fine Emirates Old Trafford side but it will do nothing to dull the memories of this victory, one that had players, non-players and executives dancing such jigs of delight on the Aigburth balcony that one feared for its foundations.
The joy was the greater because the prize had so nearly been snatched from Vilas and his players. Nine overs after tea they needed 45 runs with six wickets in hand. Lancashire supporters are not given to complacency but they were risking a dash of optimism. Then Steven Croft was leg-before to Crane for 20. 151 for 5. Danny Lamb fell to the first of Joe Weatherley's three catches off Crane in the post-tea session. 177 for 6. Luke Wood succumbed to the same combination. 187 for 7.
Nine to win. The coffee truck and the burger bar were deserted. A leg-bye sparked a genial riot. "Come on Hampshire!" roared a lone voice, much as it had done at ten-minute intervals during the day.
Tom Bailey risked a single to backward point but was run out for nought by Crane's brilliant direct hit. 193 for 8. Jack Blatherwick made a single before edging Crane to second slip. 194 for 9. "What odds the tie?" somebody said. Parkinson defended two balls and may be nominated for an award at Old Trafford.
Then Vilas swept Dawson and connected. Young men roared and strong men wept. They remembered Lancashire's title victory at Taunton in 2011 but this was tenser, this was harder. The players came out onto the balcony and took the cheers of the crowd. Vilas spoke of his pride in his team and no-one doubted him. No-one who was at Aigburth today will forget it and yet it still may not be enough. Suddenly it seemed about three days since the morning session had got underway. How did this happen?
This day of days began with the possibility of Hampshire winning the title, the near-impossibility of Warwickshire being confirmed as champions by the evening but a fair chance that Lancashire's hopes would be extinguished. Someone even voiced the weird idea that the visitors would bat so long that nothing at all would be settled today. Uncertainty spread like a tummy-bug in a nursery and the news that it was raining in Birmingham didn't help. Nonetheless there were more photographers in the press tent than normally cover a royal wedding and at least the sun came out at more or less the same time as the players. But suddenly the chatter ceased there was a heavy silence as George Balderson ran in to bowl the first ball of the last day of these sides' County Championship season. Brad Wheal played it defensively and everyone settled again.
The ability of Hampshire's last three four batters to hang around was plainly significant. Lancashire's task was already tough enough and there was the psychological impact of adding another 40 or so runs to be considered. So there was applause from the away balcony at every scrawped single, every edged boundary. Felix Organ drove Bailey through the covers but was soon leg-before for 8 when looking to whip the same bowler through the on side. 176 for 8.
Hampshire's last two wickets added another 17 runs, which was an outcome for which both captains might have settled. Certainly Bailey would have accepted his career-best figures of 7 for 37 from 24 immaculate overs; that analysis also brought Bailey's 50th wicket of a season in which his value to Lancashire's attack has been immense. James Anderson has bowled spells from his personal stratosphere; Saqib Mahmood's five-for won the Roses match. But Bailey has been there, morning in, morning out. He has turned his particular skills into a form of devotion.
Alex Davies' services to the county he is about to leave are rather more violent, something he exemplified when smacking two successive balls from Keith Barker to the cover boundary to get his side's pursuit under way. Two overs later, though, the opener was badly dropped by Wheal at mid-on and Lancashire came in to lunch very-nicely-thank-you on 19 without loss Suddenly we heard that Somerset had lost another wicket at Edgbaston and the thought grew that neither of the teams at Liverpool could win the title today.
A quarter of an hour after lunch that possibility appeared to be extinguished as Jack Leach prevented Warwickshire taking the ninth wicket they needed. Now we knew that if Hampshire won this game, they would be champions; Lancashire still needed to win and hope that Warwickshire didn't contrive a victory over Somerset. As though publishing a defiant manifesto Davies speared Barker through backward point and the score moved on to 43 without loss. Every run was being cheered now.
Also every dropped catch, of course, and Hampshire put down two before they took their first wicket. Most bizarrely, the substitute wicketkeeper Lewis McManus and first slip James Vince allowed one to pass between them when Balderson was on 12. Next over Davies celebrated his partner's reprieve by whacking Dawson's first ball over long-on for six.
Four balls later any misplaced air of jubilee was removed when the left-handed Balderson was bowled round his legs by the spinner and next over, Davies' final innings for Lancashire ended when he drove Barker straight to Crane at backward point. He had made 44 and had batted with the pugnacity that has marked his decade in Lancashire's first team. Edgbaston awaits him.
Hampshire strove for further breakthroughs - the "bang, bang" beloved of their encouraging cries - but Luke Wells and Josh Bohannon added 55 in 19 overs. Wells was for ever looking to use his long levers to work the ball through the covers while Bohannon, having driven his first ball for four was becalmed until he took two boundaries off a Wheal over. The first of them, a straight-drive, was perhaps the shot of the day. The crowd eased themselves into gentle optimism - then suddenly both batters were caught at slip by Vince in the ten minutes before tea. Bohannon edged a forward defensive stroke and then Wells nicked off when trying to force on the off side. 118 for 4.
There were nervous walks around the boundary. People walked purposefully to catering outlets only to forget what they wanted to buy. Hampshire supporters were amongst them. Then the players came out for the final session: the one that even now men and women are telling their partners about, the one that may win a ninth outright title for Lancashire; the one that even now on this nearly black night in Liverpool may do no such thing….