Late wickets leave title shootout in balance as Lancashire encourage supporters’ speculations

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George Balderson claims an opening-day wicket © Getty Images

Lancashire25 for 3 trail Hampshire 143 (Parkinson 3-9, Balderson 3-21) by 118 runs

The rapt and perfect silence that descends on a crowd as they watch a county match unfold on an outground is one of the small wonders of our world. The spectators’ attention is unimpaired and their contentment is absolute. When the game taking place is of obvious moment such as this one at Aigburth the shared attention is deepened. Outside the ground the quotidian world passes by but on this great old ground George Balderson takes two wickets in an over. The listening closeness is broken by a few cheers and supporters sporting red roses on their shorts wonder if this might be Lancashire’s year.

For the next few hours the home crowd’s delightful speculations were encouraged. After progressing without many alarums to 43 for 1 in the 21st over, Hampshire lost nine wickets for exactly a hundred runs and none of the later batters played with the unflustered ease achieved by Joe Weatherley and Tom Alsop in that early hour-long prelude to the tumble of wickets. Gradually the applause from the pockets of visiting supporters in the pavilion was replaced by more general ovations before everybody settled again and watched closely.

The particularly thoughtful spectators may have noted that if Hampshire had struggled to make 143 in 73.2 overs batting was unlikely to be a four-course dinner with wines for their own top-order. So it proved. In the sixth over Mohammad Abbas straightened one and bowled Alex Davies for 4; some ten minutes later Luke Wells was lbw to Keith Barker albeit the ball may have hit him just outside the line.

By now James Vince’s attack sensed the probability of further breakthroughs and it was no shock when Balderson’s reflex flick nicked a catch to Tom Alsop. Josh Bohannon and the nightwatchman Jack Blatherwick saw their side to the close without further damage although Bohannon may not agree, given that he copped one in the bollocks from Abbas. In its way the blow was a metaphor for those last 20 overs but the Boltonian rarely strikes one as a literary type and may describe it more colourfully.

Either way it was plain that while Warwickshire were racking up the bonus points at Edgbaston and Joe Clarke was making hay for horses at Trent Bridge, these sides may need to settle for a 19-point victory in this game and hope it is enough. The resilience of Somerset and Yorkshire’s batters may be as significant as anything in deciding the destiny of the title.

None of which should detract from the intensity of the cricket seen on this balmy mid-September day in Liverpool. Only 168 runs were scored in 93.2 overs but there were no complaints from the large crowd circling what remains one of English cricket’s great arenas.

Instead they lauded the efforts of Balderson, who is probably seen by some as precisely the sort of 75mph seamer of which the county game has an unwelcome abundance. In fact, he is a skilful allrounder whose emergence in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy has been followed by some impressive performances in the past month. His dismissal of Alsop, Nick Gubbins and Weatherley in the space of 11 balls – Alsop taken by Danny Lamb at slip, the others by Davies behind the wicket – inflicted damage on Hampshire’s first innings from which it never properly recovered.

Struggling on 63 for 4 at lunch, the visitors then suffered two crippling losses in a single over shortly after the resumption. Liam Dawson was cruelly run out for 10 when Tom Bailey got a touch to Vince’s fierce drive and then the Hampshire captain was caught behind when driving far too loosely at Bailey.

“Here we go, boys, here we go,” shouted a Lancashire fielder for the umpteenth time in the day but Hampshire’s tail withstood the seamers’ attack so successfully that Dane Vilas had to summon Matt Parkinson into the attack from the River End. Immediately the legspinner got the ball to grip and turn, which was not the most cheerful sign for his top order. The home side’s cricket began to grow ragged as if they expected wickets to fall like Braeburns from a tree.

Barker was dropped by Lamb at slip but was brilliantly caught by a diving Davies down the leg side off Luke Wood in the next over. Then Mason Crane was put down by Wells in the cordon off Balderson. Some may have thought it of little account but their view had probably changed two hours later when Crane had made 25, his side’s top score in a match where half-centuries will be mountain-tops.

Felix Organ also chipped in with 22 and Hampshire’s last four wickets had more than doubled their score from 71 for 4 when Crane finally slogged Parkinson to Wood at long-off. Lancashire’s players came off the field and were greeted warm by the members in the pavilion. Ten minutes later Davies and Balderson were striding out to face one of the finest attacks in the country and this evening the game is in the balance.

The teams at Liverpool can do nothing but concentrate on winning this game. The results of victory will take care of themselves. They must struggle for dominance in the blissful calm of these equinoctial days and hope that the struggle availeth. For in less than a fortnight we will not be doing this; in less than a fortnight all this will be gone for another year.

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

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ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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