Worcestershire 77 for 4 (Kadeer Ali 0*, Malik 0*) trail Lancashire 187 (Loye 59*, Batty 2-9) by 110 runs
For the past decade or so, Lancashire have been one of the there-or-thereabouts teams of the County Championship. This year, however - with Surrey in strife and Sussex still pinching themselves - they have been installed as favourites almost by default. But it wasn't until mid-afternoon today, when the sun finally peeked through a curtain of gloom at Old Trafford, that they began to reaffirm those credentials.
By the close of play, Worcestershire had reached 77 for 4 in reply to Lancashire's 187 all out, and held the upper hand ... just. But Lancashire's position was considerably healthier than it had been an hour into the second session, when they had slumped to 119 for 8. For that, they were indebted to Mal Loye, who batted through the pain of a back spasm to make an unbeaten 59, and the wiles of Gary Keedy, who grabbed two vital wickets in four overs late in the day to build on a profitable return to action from James Anderson.
Loye's innings was a masterpiece of minimalism. He could hardly move one foot in front of the other - let alone reach the far end of the pitch - but he laid into any width with the eye of a sniper. His most extraordinary shot was an effortless pick-up for six as Matt Mason returned for a new spell, and when another stand-and-deliver cut whistled past backward point for four, an enthusiastic crowd of 1800 greeted his efforts with genuine warmth.
Keedy provided the deadpan support, adding 7 in a ninth-wicket stand of 60, before he and Anderson both fell to his rival spinner, Gareth Batty. But that pair had the last laugh in the day's play. Anderson bowled Stephen Moore off a fat inside-edge (18 for 1) before nailing Worcestershire's man of the moment, Graeme Hick, with a pearling yorker. And when Keedy entered the attack with the shadows - and Worcestershire's third-wicket partnership - lengthening, he bamboozled Stephen Peters and Ben Smith to tilt the balance northwards for the first time.
Such an upbeat finish to the day had seemed improbable for Lancashire, after Warren Hegg's decision to bat first had backfired in the morning session. In choosing to make a bold statement of intent, he gifted some glorious seam-bowling conditions to Worcestershire. Andy Bichel made the first breakthrough when Iain Sutcliffe slashed to point for 9, while the early part of Loye's innings was sketchy to say the least. He was dropped second ball by Steve Rhodes, and had it not been for the obvious pain he was in, he might have been quite relieved to retire hurt on 4, after pulling up sharply in his attempt for a third run. At least his wicket was still intact.
But if Loye had anticipated a lengthy spell with his feet up in the dressing-room, he had to think again as wickets began to tumble. Bichel to Stuart Law - Queensland exiles both - should have been a contest to savour, but Mason spoilt the reunion when he had Law caught in the gully by Kadeer Ali (44 for 2), and in his next over, Mason struck again - a beautiful, late seaming delivery to Carl Hooper that was well held by Peters at third slip (46 for 3).
Mark Chilton had been the most composed of Lancashire's batsmen, but he fenced Andrew Hall into the bucket hands of Hick at second slip (63 for 4). Up in the hospitality boxes, Freddie Flintoff was a concerned man, although it wasn't easy to tell which aspect of the game was alarming him most - his team's perilous position, or the sort of extravagant mid-May movement that bodes ill for England's recent returnees from the Caribbean.
The procession continued after lunch, when Hall pulled off a flashy two-handed catch at first slip to remove Glen Chapple (87 for 5). Dominic Cork - hopping and skipping like a frisky mare - and Warren Hegg added 30 for the sixth wicket to hint at a revival, but once Cork had played on to Hall, Nadeem Malik took centre stage with a brace of immaculate outswingers to give Hick his second and third catches of the innings.
Lancashire's innings had reached its nadir, but Championships are won and lost from positions such as these. Loye grinned and bore the brunt of the runscoring responsibilities, while Keedy hung on obdurately at his side - his main role will come later in the match. By the close, Lancashire had hauled themselves back into a position of relative strength.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.