Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
Northamptonshire 177 and 59 for 3 (Vasconcelos 22*, Proctor 15*, Mahmood 2-9) need another 366 runs to beat Lancashire 305 and 296 for 7 declared (Croft 103*)
When this morning's play began Lancashire had a lead of 188 over Northamptonshire and all their second-innings wickets in hand. By the time the long day closed at 7.20pm they had reduced the visitors to 59 for 3 and a victory target of 425 appeared merely fantastical. A good day for the Red Rose, you might think, and you would be correct. Yet much of their batting had been so careless that it might have been designed to have their head coach, Glen Chapple, emulating Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha and hopping about with a hatchet.
The one player exempted from Chapple's ire was Steven Croft, whose unbeaten century will have had Lancashire supporters smiling in shared pleasure. Croft's love for the county of his birth is undoubted. When he pulled Nathan Buck for six to reach his hundred, thereby prompting a declaration, the home dressing room erupted in noisy acclamation. Croft was hugged by Tom Hartley, his batting partner, and he raised his arms towards his team-mates, some of whom may still have been watching Peppa Pig when he first played for Lancashire.
The century had been the product of careful workmanship rather than effortless style. There were pulls to square leg, nudges through the slips and leg glances but only seven fours. The one concession to modernity, albeit Croft has kept his place in Lancashire's T20 team, was the reverse sweep, which he now plays as easily as Robert Browning once produced rhyming couplets. He could have gone for three early in the morning session had Adam Rossington clung on to a right-handed diving catch but Croft has long been careful to make the most of such opportunities, for he has no clue how many more he might get.
Three years ago he thought he would not get another contract with Lancashire but the coaches opted to give him another season, then one more, then another. There was nothing indulgent about these decisions. Although not the five-furlong favourite he once was, Croft can still do a job anywhere in the field and held on to two slip catches as Northants subsided this evening.
Croft played in the side that won the Championship in 2011 and he skippered the team that won the T20 Blast in 2015. He is 37 in October yet it is an offence against nature to think of him as a veteran. Like schoolboys with a favourite master, supporters honour him with a nickname, although 'Crofty' is hardly in the class of 'Rhino', the name the boys at Thursgood's gave to Jim Prideaux. This was his first Championship century since 2017 but there have been more than enough valuable innings in the meantime to reassure supporters wondering if a much-loved cricketer might have hung on a season too long.
Application and an awareness of responsibility are often made particularly noticeable by their absence elsewhere and Lancashire's other batsmen probably made Croft's effort appear a little better than it was. Both openers were dismissed in the first nine deliveries of the morning, Keaton Jennings playing around an inswinger from Ben Sanderson and Alex Davies pushing forward just enough to edge Tom Taylor to Ricardo Vasconcelos at first slip. But the worst was yet to come.
Having driven the Northants seamers for three of the pleasantest boundaries we will see this season Josh Bohannon played skew-whiff at a well-flighted off-spinner from Rob Keogh and inside-edged the ball onto his leg stump. Given that he had been presented with a good opportunity to collect a cheeky 80 runs or so, Bohannon's 22 must have frustrated the coaches. But Lancashire were still well placed on 162 for 3 at lunch. On the resumption sanity left the stadium.
In the first over of the afternoon session Dane Vilas played the ball to square leg and called Croft for an absurd single. The daftness of the exercise was plain almost immediately but not soon enough to save Lancashire's skipper. Two overs later Croft clipped the ball in a similar direction only to see Rob Jones scampering down the wicket as if escaping a lunatic with a sharp knife. Emilio Gay threw the ball to the non-striker's end and someone noted that five of Lancashire's last 18 wickets had been lost to run outs. For the only time since last August one was grateful spectators were not present.
The rest of the innings was less deranged. Luke Wood and Tom Bailey helped Croft take Northamptonshire's target beyond that scored by any side in the fourth innings to beat Lancashire and the visitors' job was made even harder by Saqib Mahmood's magnificently hostile five-over spell with the new ball from the James Anderson End. The fast bowler beat both Ben Curran and Gay for pace and is clearly well suited to the short burst Vilas gave him. He will be steaming in again in the morning and then Matt Parkinson will send down some leg spin. Northants have form when it comes to foxing the bookies but one cannot like their chances.