Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
Lancashire 339 for 5 (Vilas 158*, Davies 61, Jones 58) lead Sussex 301 (Haines 155, Robinson 59, Bailey 4-48) by 38 runs
Counties nowadays do plenty of research before they invest in overseas players. There is little doubt Lancashire had a good idea what they were getting when they signed Dane Vilas in advance of the 2017 season. Yet even the most painstaking official could scarcely fail to have been surprised by Vilas's impact on life at Emirates Old Trafford. Time and then time again he has changed games. His influence as captain on the dressing room is deep and abiding. And today, as spring's impertinent ambition transformed the so recently skeletal trees around this most urban of grounds, Lancashire's captain performed his familiar trick once more.
There are occasions when too much importance is attached to sportsmen's body language. But as Vilas marched off the ground with an unbeaten 158 to his name and Sussex's players dragged themselves back to their dressing room after they had suffered the sort of mauling handed out by an irritable lion, it was plain where the balance of this game lay. Although only 64 of his runs had come in boundaries, Vilas had harried Ben Brown's bowlers at every opportunity, constantly exhorting his partners, Alex Davies, Rob Jones and Luke Wood to sprint harder and increase the pressure on a young attack.
But admirable avarice has been one of Vilas's trademarks at Lancashire and it has only been satisfied because the captain takes pride in his fitness. During the course of his century against Sussex he passed 3000 runs in his 50th first-class match at an average exceeded by only three Lancashire batsmen at similar stages of their careers. Then there is the multi-faceted leadership; Vilas is not simply Lancashire's skipper; he sets the standard and provides the example for others to follow. Rob Jones, with whom Vilas put on 125 for the fifth wicket against Sussex, is a far better player for having been encouraged to assess situations by his captain and then bat according to his findings.
This has been a match of dropped catches. Yet as Vilas took Lancashire into a 38-run first-innings lead late in the evening session, it became clear that the most significant spill will not be those that allowed Tom Haines to make 155 on the first day but the diving chance at slip that George Garton put down off Jack Carson's off spin when Vilas was a mere 47. It would certainly have improved Carson's day, albeit the young off-spinner at least claimed the final wicket to fall when Jones reverse-swept a full toss straight to Tom Clark at backward point and departed for 58.
By then, however, Vilas was in full flow. His unbroken stand of 82 with Luke Wood has set Lancashire up for further riches tomorrow and Sussex may well have a tricky task saving this game even though the pitch remains true and blameless. Yet none of these riches had appeared likely to come the home team's way as they slipped to 41 for 3 just before lunch on what now seems so distant a session that it could have taken place on another day altogether.
To forget the morning's play, though, would do little credit to Ollie Robinson, whose pace and accuracy with the new ball induced Keaton Jennings to edge to Aaron Thomason at fourth slip and Josh Bohannon to nick the ball to Ben Brown. When Steven Croft's attempted pull off George Garton merely gloved another catch to Brown, Lancashire were 41 for 3 and the home coaches may have been reflecting sombrely on the fact that for something like an hour, 24 hours previously, their side was within two wickets of having their boots on Sussex's neck.
Instead they watched a trifle nervously today as Davies pulled and punched his way to 61 and put on 91 with Vilas before the debutant left-arm seamer Sean Hunt brought one back off the seam to have him leg before wicket. Hunt bowled well on his first appearance and deserved his wicket but Sussex's other bowlers faded in the face of Vilas's calibrated attack. Brown's attack is young and in time his players will learn much from days like today. Yet as the spring sun took command and the day deepened into afternoon, our attention shifted from callow bowlers trying to further their careers and focused instead on the iron will of a Lancashire batsmen intent on preventing them doing so.
"Nothing is so beautiful as Spring," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and on afternoons like this it was easy to agree. Even photographers who had talked darkly of their chances of ending this game with a full complement of toes observed that the temperature had gone up a notch or two. So we took details of the snappers' next of kin, loaded them up with Kendal Mint Cake and sent them out to sunbathe. Then Vilas punched another four through the covers and suddenly we again noticed the lack of a crowd and their warm salutes for one of Lancashire's finest.