Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
Sussex 301 (Haines 155, Robinson 59, Bailey 4-48) and 103 for 2 (Thomason 46*) drew with Lancashire 407 (Vilas 189, Davies 61, Jones 58)
When a heavy snow shower ended this match just after lunch on the final day one or two wiseacres at Old Trafford suggested it was all one could expect if one played cricket at such a damn silly time of year. What such people appear to forget is that a year ago when the country had just entered its first lockdown, God's mordant wit furnished us with one of the balmiest and driest springs in memory. It seems absurd to rule out playing first-class cricket in both April and September simply because the weather is a little iffy; if that was the criterion, we'd hardly get out there at all.
Two much more persuasive analyses of this match were supplied after its conclusion by the Sussex skipper, Ben Brown, and Lancashire's assistant coach, Mark Chilton. They suggested that a game many will recall for the complete absence of both spectators and warmth has still supplied much from which their players can benefit as they ready themselves for the five gorgeous months that await us. Lancashire already knew Dane Vilas was a batsman of the highest class, of course; his 189 was barely par. But the manner in which the home attack approached their work on this final morning, albeit they took only two wickets, was impressive indeed.
"That first session is a benchmark now," said Chilton. "We played with great intensity even when we weren't picking up wickets. That's the level at which the players want to perform and if they continue like that, they'll get the results."
To a degree one needed to watch the cricket closely for two hours to see what Chilton meant. The maintenance of lines of attack, the scarcity of loose balls and the enthusiasm of Lancashire's fielding rewarded careful study. Even then, Sussex's openers, Tom Haines and Aaron Thomason resisted Saqib Mahmood, Tom Bailey et al for over an hour until Mahmood took two wickets in successive overs. The first of these fell after two long legs had been posted for Haines, who obliged by hooking the ball straight to Tom Hartley, the finer of the fielders. Less than ten minutes later Stiaan van Zyl's rather miserable return to the colours was completed when he was leg before to Mahmood for 4, but Thomason and Tom Clark took their team to lunch without further mishap.
Not, however, without further comment. Thomason, a properly combative fellow, had apparently already irritated Lancashire by his desire to go off for bad light on Saturday evening, although his keenness may be attributed to an understandable wish to avoid hypothermia. However, when Luke Wood piled into 20-year-old Clark in an attempt to unsettle the lad, Thomason was soon atop the barricades. He and Vilas had already exchanged pleasantries when the umpires decided to snuff the matter out before it graduated from tetchiness to hostility. This attempt was only partially successful for it appeared that Neil Bainton and Martin Saggers were monitoring the situation throughout the morning, rather in the manner of United Nations peacekeepers. In truth the affair was manbags at coffee-time. There will be a few more such contretemps before September is out.
But the argy bargy encouraged Brown, who had led the Sussex side comprehensively disembowelled by Lancashire on three boiling days in July 2019. And even more heartening to him had been the bowling of offspinner Jack Carson in freezing condition on a very good pitch and that of debutant Sean Hunt, who picked up three wickets and was the pick of Brown's seamers in Lancashire's first innings.
"I'm really proud of our efforts," said Brown. "To go toe to toe with a really strong Lancashire side, one that you would expect to be up there at the end of the season, was a great start to the season. To judge from that last session of fiery cricket I think we rather surprised Lancashire and it's just a shame that the weather took a hand on the last two days.
"To see the guys have each other's backs is something I'm very passionate about. I thought it was really hard first-class cricket but Sussex v Lancashire has a fantastic tradition of fiery games and to renew that and see people stand up for each other made it an excellent start to the season."
So what price playing in April now? Sussex travel to Cardiff on Wednesday where they will meet a Glamorgan side buoyed by the cricket they played at Headingley. Lancashire host Northants, who responded to Kent's tall score at Canterbury with one of their own. And all 18 teams have a chance of winning the County Championship. Heavens above, if things carry on like this, there is a danger we might start enjoying ourselves.