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Steven Croft provides wisdom of ages as star-stripped Lancashire push for ninth Finals Day

Veteran will provide constant presence as Lancashire host Essex in Blast quarter-final

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Steven Croft swings for the hills, Durham vs Lancashire, Chester-le-Street, Vitality Blast, June 10, 2022

Steven Croft swings for the hills  •  MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Croft of Lancashire. It has a ring to it; an intimation of loyalty beyond question and certainly beyond contracts. It was the same with Stewart of Surrey (both of them), and one would like to think it will be the same with Fletcher of Nottinghamshire and Abell of Somerset. Some of the very best things in life are non-negotiable and it's surely absurd to think of Steven Croft representing a county other than Lancashire.
It's hardly likely to happen, of course. Crofty is 37 now - that seems even dafter, by the way - and on Friday evening he will play his 224th T20 game when Lancashire host Essex in the Vitality Blast quarter-final. Those statistics include a record 148 consecutive appearances, the most by any player in English cricket and second in global terms only to Suresh Raina's 158 appearances for Chennai Super Kings. Since he made his short-form debut for Lancashire in 2006, Croft has scored 4810 runs at a steady average around 30, he has pouched 130 catches and he has taken 78 wickets with his occasional off-spin. (His CV includes eight matches for Auckland in 2008-09 but those games hardly change the overall picture.)
This year the off-spin has become very occasional indeed; in fact, there's only been one over of it and maybe this is not surprising in a team that has often included Matt Parkinson, Liam Livingstone, Tom Hartley and Tim David. But if Croft's bowling hasn't been needed as much in 2022, his batting has become ever more valuable. He is Lancashire's leading scorer with 422 runs at an average of 35.16 and he has notched three fifties, two of them at Blackpool, his old club. Going in at No.3, he has almost had time to build innings and to score important runs, even in a side that has included Livingstone, David, Salt, and mirabile dictu Jos Buttler for one game.
"My role's changed a little bit," Croft said. "I've always enjoyed batting at No.3 in the Blast, I've done a bit of it in the past and it's nice to go in when the ball's a bit harder. It suits my game to bat in the opening overs and I've been enjoying it. You think you'll be in early and I always see that as an opportunity to stay positive. There's not much of a lull after the Powerplay these days, everyone just keeps going. You might pick your bowlers and your ends but you go hard all the way through."
That reference to going hard runs a little counter to Rob Key's view, which was expressed a few years ago, that twenty overs is longer than people might think. There is, so Key implied, time to take stock. But Croft's career can be seen as a prism through which the development of English cricket can be viewed and T20 is now a format in which quiet overs are wasted overs. What's more, everyone is expected to be able to bat and field and if you can chip in with a couple of cheeky overs of something funky, that's all the better. And the need for all players to be able to bat was made clear on Sunday evening when Hartley marked the arrival of a new bat by hitting his first sixes in professional cricket, blows which ensured Lancashire bagged a home quarter-final.
"It has been coming for Tom," Croft said. "He's always had that potential with the bat and he works on it but it was nice to see him get us over the line. But all the lads work on multiple skills and that includes the fielding as well. Even at 9, 10 or 11, you have to find a way to score and it's the same with the ball. I've taken a back seat with that this season but I may need to do a little more on Friday."
Lancashire's need for Croft's all-round skills has been heightened by the fact that Livingstone, Salt, Parkinson and Gleeson have all been named in Buttler's England squad for the three-match T20 series against India. Essex have not been weakened at all by international calls but maybe that balances things out a bit. After all, Lancashire have not lost a home T20 match for two years and Croft is grateful that he won't be spending a big chunk of two days on a coach down to Chelmsford, a ground where he recalls the atmosphere being "boisterous to say the least" the last time Lancashire played a quarter-final there in 2010. They were hammered by eight wickets on an evening when New Writtle Street bore a passable imitation to Upton Park.
"Being unbeaten at home for 14 games is a great feat and I think we're up there in terms of matches won," Croft said. "So we can go into this match with a degree of confidence, not just in historical terms but also based on our recent record. We've played some really great cricket at Emirates Old Trafford this season.
"But it's also useful in terms of preparation because we don't have to get on the coach again or spend another night away from our beds. It's saved a lot of miles on the round-trip and we'll also have a couple of days practice at home. It's nice to be back at Old Trafford where we all have our own space and our own lockers."
As to the absences, Croft insists Lancashire have coped with such things before but he acknowledges that T20 is such a skittish game that one over or even a couple of balls can transform a match. Just ask Hartley.
"If you get out of your group, anyone can have a field day against you in the shorter formats," Croft added. "All you can do is be on it all the time but even the best teams in the world have a win rate around 60%."
And should Lancashire qualify for their ninth Finals Day, Croft hopes that England's next white-ball series - a 50-over series against India - will not prevent any county fielding its strongest side.
"There's an England match either side of T20 Finals Day but that Saturday in Edgbaston is one of the biggest occasions in the calendar," he said. "You want to play with the best against the best and then no one has any excuses. It'll be disappointing if our England lads aren't available but we understand that there's a hectic international schedule. At the same time, I'd love to see everyone available to play in front of a packed house at Edgbaston."

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications