In our new series Match From the Day, Paul Edwards revisits classic county games.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Surrey 427 (Ramprakash 196, Benning 51, Mahmood 4-93) and 295 for 5 dec (Ramprakash 130*) beat Lancashire 234 (Laxman 53, Nicholson 3-30, Jordan 3-50) and 464 (Laxman 100, Law 79, Hussain 4-126, Dernbach 3-85) by 24 runs
"Come on, Pring, be honest. It's not on, is it?"
Thus Andy Wilson, once of the Guardian, to Derek Pringle, once of the Daily Telegraph.
We were sitting in the Stygian gloom of The Oval press box. It was the evening of Friday, September 21, 2007 and Lancashire had just begun their pursuit of 489 to beat Surrey. Success would have brought a first title in 73 years; failure would have sealed another nearly-but-not-quite summer, Lancashire's umpteenth such campaign since Edward VIII retired hurt.
But Pringle did not abdicate his responsibilities. He agreed it wasn't on. For one thing, it would have been the second-highest successful run-chase in the history of the County Championship. For another, Lancashire were 27 without loss and therefore needed to score another 462 runs in a day. True, the wicket was flat. True, Lancashire had Laxman, Law and nothing to lose. For if Sussex beat Worcestershire at Hove on Saturday morning, as they seemed certain to do, Mark Chilton's team would have to beat Surrey to take the title.
But however you diced and sliced the matter, it was not on. Wilson allowed realism to trump romance and returned home. No one thought him unwise or disloyal. The only northern journos who stayed were duty bound to do so. So the mythic gloom was fitting. Old Trafford's chances were about to be rowed across the river once again.
No one was ready for the charge of the Lancs Brigade.
How had it come to this? It is always tempting and rarely correct to view any four-day county match in its own delicate context. So enthralling is the shifting balance of a Championship game that one sometimes thinks a small war could be declared and no one watching the cricket would notice. In truth, of course, while this piece concerns one day in one match, it also embraces the other 71 played in Division One that season (well, 68 actually; three were utterly abandoned).
So the events of Saturday, September 22 were the dénouement of a five-month mystery filled with complexities, red herrings, pratfalls, heroes and hardly any villains. The penultimate chapter had seen Lancashire go top of the table when VVS Laxman's regal century guided them to a nine-wicket defeat of Warwickshire. That win was enough to enliven the PA announcer Matt Proctor's end-of-season farewell, which spectators probably considered a further bonus. Proctor's usual mid-September homily to spectators often contained so many references to darkness and long winter evenings that it might have depressed Kriss Akabusi.
Thus Lancashire's cricketers arrived at Kennington with the title beckoning them. Sky's pantechnicons had rolled up a couple of days earlier. All the visitors needed to do was beat Surrey; and in 2007 that meant they had to dismiss Mark Ramprakash. Twice. This was easier to plan than execute. Ramprakash was far and away the best batsman on the circuit in 2007. He arrived at The Oval for that final game with 1700 Championship runs and eight centuries to his credit. "Ramps was just red-hot that summer," Luke Sutton recalls. "If you gave him a chance, he always made you pay and their whole team was built around him. He was a machine and if you could get him out, you'd gone a long way towards beating them."
And so, of course, Lancashire were given an immediate opportunity to achieve their goal. Jon Batty had fallen to Sajid Mahmood for a duck early on the first morning and Ramprakash seemed a trifle ill at ease against the new ball. He was not, as they say, "on it". At which point let the Manchester Evening News take up the story (for this was still a time when great regional newspapers sent reporters to cover matches):
"Ramprakash might have gone without scoring too, attempting a jittery single after jamming a Mahmood yorker out into the off side. The bowler picked up in his follow through and 'back handed' his throw close to the stumps, where short-leg fielder Paul Horton failed to gather - with Ramprakash retreating but still short of his ground."
Some cricketers never discover the precise cost of their errors. Poor Horton is not amongst them. It appeared to Lancashire's players that Ramprakash was galvanised by his reprieve, although there is also a thought that an unwise sledge helped things along. A little over 24 hours after that early drama Surrey's best batsman was dismissed by Glen Chapple for 196. Lancashire replied to Surrey's 427 with 234 and Ramprakash then helped himself to another 130 runs, unbeaten this time, before Mark Butcher declared late on the third evening.
It would be simplistic to say that Lancashire's failure to run out Ramprakash cost them the title. Errors in crucial games are magnified by the moment of their making. There were not many at The Oval those blissful September days who recalled Sussex's game against Lancashire at Liverpool in August. Had they done so, they might have pondered the significance of Chris Adams' brilliant one-handed diving snare at slip which removed Stuart Law off Rana Naved-ul-Hasan for 16 and helped set up the visitors' 108-run victory. No one said that was the moment that decided the title. Just over seven weeks later Adams' bowlers duly took the last five Worcestershire wickets in less than a session and all they could do was wait, a task not helped by the fact that Sky had shifted its coverage to the World T20 and local radio was on the blink.
At The Oval Lancashire's batsmen had begun their absurd task with the words of one of the world's greatest cricketers spurring them on. "My first recollection was that the mood was pretty low on that Saturday morning," Sutton says. "It wasn't up and at 'em as I recall. Then VVS Laxman gave a speech just before the day's play and I can't remember exactly what he said but it was along the lines of 'Look, guys, we can do this. It seems impossible but the wicket's good and this side is packed full of talent.' And I remember coming out of that huddle thinking we could do it. But then VVS was not just a special player, he was a special person as well."
The cricket was a trifle special, too. Horton and Chilton put on 56 and then Chilton and Laxman added a further 58. The batting was brisk and clearly energised by the six-hour run-chase the match had become. After lunch Laxman and Law began to dominate Surrey's bowlers. Matt Nicholson was going round the park at five runs an over and only Murtaza Hussain appeared capable of restricting the batsmen. Laxman reached another century off 97 balls and then almost immediately miscued a pull off Ian Salisbury. Ramprakash - who else? - took the catch at deepish midwicket: 229 for 3.
It made all the difference in the world and it made no difference whatever. Steven Croft took up where Laxman had left off and added a further 77 with Law. By now the media pack had forsaken their appointed darkroom and were sitting in warm sunlight. You didn't need to be born or raised in Lancashire to hope Chilly's men could do it. Having once changed trains in Clitheroe was enough. Anyone born in Sussex kept very quiet. Croft pulled another boundary through midwicket.
"Go, Crofty!" roared Old Trafford's media officer Rebecca Trbojevich, her Sydney accent clear above the hubbub of the large crowd.
"Who is that?" Michael Henderson enquired of the Rev. Malcolm Lorimer, the county's chaplain and archivist.
"That's Lancashire's communications officer," replied the great cleric.
A pontifical silence followed. Then Law cut Jade Dernbach savagely through point and more visiting supporters gave voice to dreams: 306 for 3. "You ran through the reasons why it wasn't going to happen and you got to a tipping point of thinking maybe it was," Sutton says. "As the day wore on we got to a stage when we really thought we might do it."
Law was strangled down the leg side off Dernbach, who at once dismissed Croft in similar fashion: 307 for 5. But as each Lancashire batsman fell when looking for quick runs, another took their place, imbued with identical purpose.
Sutton made 32 and Chapple 29 off 28 balls. Tea had long come and gone and still the Sussex players and spectators sat around at Hove, either desperately trying to hear news or desperately trying to look nonchalant. Mahmood and Dominic Cork put on 52 for the eighth wicket. By now less than a hundred runs were needed and the light was failing. When Mahmood was taken down the leg side off Hussain 58 were needed off 12 overs. Oliver Newby became the only Lancashire batsman not to make double figures.
Only 25 were needed off 25 balls when Cork inside-edged Hussain on to his stumps...
Almost immediately at Hove there was a chorus of "Good Old Sussex by the Sea" and the small ground staged a riot of joy. It was the county's third title in five years.
In the away dressing room at The Oval there were tears and there was silence.
"For most of the day there was a significant belief we could do it and that's why we took it so hard when we didn't," Chilton says. "There were periods when they didn't look like getting a wicket and it was becoming more and more achievable. We got so close that we almost felt we'd let it slip. I was captain and it was pretty crushing for me but I was sitting opposite Corky and he was absolutely devastated. For half an hour afterwards no one spoke."
Eventually, the players trooped out onto the field. Surrey's skipper, Butcher, approached Chilton, whose face was streaked with tears. "Chilly, mate," Butcher murmured and gave him a hug. He didn't need to say anything else. None of us did.
It was a while before the full glory of those four days at The Oval sank in but the memory has never faded. We had seen a title lost in what we thought the most memorable fashion possible. We had seen Mark Ramprakash make two hundreds and VVS Laxman just the one. There is a fair argument that in 2007 no two batsmen in the world endowed their craft with more style or honour. And as darkness closed around The Oval that September evening at least one of us would not have been too surprised to be told he would still be writing about that game nearly 13 years later. They say paradise is up in the stars.
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