Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
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Essex 391 (Lawrence 120, Browne 71; Bailey 3-61) beat Lancashire 103 (Cook 4-18) and 232 (Vilas 62; Harmer 5-89)
The raincloud reinforcements never arrived and perhaps we should all be grateful. To see an all but certain victory scuppered by the weather once every five seasons adds to cricket's reputation for eccentricity; to see it happen on a regular basis would make the game look unfair and silly. (Almost as silly, one might suggest, as trying to reorganise the domestic structure without addressing the presence of two top-level short-form competitions hogging eight prime weeks of the season.) So only the Hotpot Fundamentalists could have been disappointed this morning when they drew back their Cyril Washbrook curtains and saw high clouds above Manchester.
But of course, such occasions offer opportunities for self-conscious laughter. Only when his side is nine wickets down is it likely that James Anderson will be practising his batting before play. And maybe it helped. Anderson batted perfectly competently during the 3.3 overs we watched and even drove Simon Harmer rather sweetly through midwicket for four. It may have been that shot that persuaded Tom Westley to replace Harmer with Jamie Porter at the Brian Statham End, a switch which brought about the end of the match. All it took was a decent seed outside off stump to get Luke Wood fencing and Adam Rossington accepting the edged chance.
In truth the moment of victory was greeted with about as much joy among the Essex fielders as one might expect to witness when Sir Alastair Cook announces that he going to change his bat grip. But an overnight score of 213 for 9 and a high-clouded Mancunian morning does that to a bunch of chaps. Whatever Isaiah Berlin (I Zingari 1929-35) might say, inevitability leaves its mark.
Fortunately, Westley was in more effusive mood when he reflected on a victory that shifts his team into the top half of the Division One table: "I'm so pleased for the boys," he said. "We've played some good cricket this year but to nowhere near the standard we've reached in the past. We've batted well in one game and bowled well in another, but we haven't been able to piece it together. However, that was one of the complete Essex performances. Getting 391 on that wicket was a great effort and then to bowl them out twice was outstanding."
As for Lancashire, their crumbs of comfort today were microscopic. Wood hit one pleasant four and edged a couple more, all off Sam Cook, who nonetheless finished the game with match figures of 6 for 62 and whose new-ball spell on Friday did as much as anything to determine the shape of the contest. Harmer, meanwhile, took five wickets for the first time this season and the fairly obvious thing to say about that is that it won't be the last.
There were other oddities and coincidences. This final day was watched by 45 spectators, although it should be noted that one or two of them didn't move at all and nobody thought to check for vital signs. Either way they were corporeally present to see only Lancashire's fifth innings defeat this century and their first since they lost to Yorkshire, also at Old Trafford, in August 2014. It is also the Lancashire's first home defeat since 2018, when they lost the Roses match in July. (Correspondents in Ilkley and Pontefract may be detecting a pleasing pattern here.)
Predictably, Dane Vilas had no time whatever for moaning or hand-wringing: "It's difficult [to play six consecutive Championship games] but it's part of the game," he said. "We've done it before and we are not going to use it as an excuse. We do the hard work in the winter to get ready for times like this. We should be fit enough and strong enough to handle those situations. They put us under massive pressure and if you let things slip for one second, you can actually put yourself under pressure, which is what we did."
As might be imagined, the occupants of the press box were under no particular pressure this morning, not when set against the mayhem and uncertainty of Saturday evening. They were left to delve among the day's oddities and anniversaries, discovering as they did so that it is 19 years today since a cheery James Anderson (no, really) made his Test debut against Zimbabwe at Lord's. Alongside him was Anthony McGrath, the current Essex coach. Anderson has so far played another 168 Tests; McGrath's career, which ended in 2012, contained just four such games. Such connections are commoner that might be supposed in English cricket; they help us to chart the contrasting arcs of players' careers. They help explain why we turn up on perfect May mornings to watch a game whose outcome is surely certain yet whose charm remains boundless.
Essex romp to thumping innings victory over high-flying Lancashire
Jamie Porter wrapped up comprehensive win inside 14 minutes on final morning
Simon Harmer, Sam Cook leave much-fancied Lancashire dancing for rain
Essex need one more wicket on final morning after enforcing follow-on
Child's play for Essex's quicks as Lancashire fail to learn their own lessons
Schools Open Day at Old Trafford ends before their new-found heroes crumble with the bat