County focus; Northern lights' great expectation

Derek Pringle weighs the prospects of Championship glory for Lancashire
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CLEAN sweeps in Manchester, despite the city's sooty industrial past, have nearly always been associated with a certain big-spending football club. But though the winter game may have monopolised the dreams of the Mancunian masses, it is the summer's cricket that may yet deliver the heady reality of grand slam glory to Old Trafford.

Half a mile from the mecca that is Manchester United, the other Old Trafford is on song; Lancashire County Cricket Club are on course for their best ever season. Handily placed in all four major competitions, they begin their quest for cricket's "holy grail", when they play Kent in Saturday's Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord's. It promises much, not least a resurgent North versus a South clinging to past deeds; pitting sippers against suppers and Pimm's against ale.

With three men (Atherton, Gallian and Martin) in the England side and three more (Watkinson, Crawley and Chapple) on the fringes, no side at present epitomises northern England's cricketing renaissance as overtly as Lancashire, who must start the day as favourites. However, their captain Mike Watkinson is more cautious. "I think it will be pretty even," he said, back with his county after being left out by England for the Third Test. "Kent have some dangerous players, who can adapt to the rapidly changing situations of one-day cricket."

Doubts may linger in Lancashire minds. Their 34-year long allergy to the Championship irks many, not least those pushing the club's future as a member of the high-profile "Big Five". Watkinson, while acknowledging "superb support", reckons there is an element of the membership who won't be content until the club have again won the famous pennant (they shared the title with Surrey in 1950). "In the past, Lancashire have perhaps under-achieved in this area, but this year, we've definitely got a side capable of winning it," Watkinson said.

Test calls - seen by some as a fiendish plot by a despotic Yorkshireman - have not helped their cause either. After a storming start to the season, they have slipped to seventh place in the Championship, though they have a game in hand. Though Middlesex and Essex both won the Championship with 24 and 13 Test calls respectively, a four-day contest makes these absences harder to absorb. Watkinson recognises this: "While Test calls always give you a high profile, they have really stretched our resources. With one or two players getting injured as well, it has not been easy, and the lads have responded magnificently. Against Essex we had five regulars missing, but we still won the four-day match and the Sunday League. You can't ask for more than that, though it is not an ideal situation to be in, week in and week out."

Watkinson's own form for his county, in line with Atherton's for England (until Edgbaston), has positively bloomed at the helm. So far, two centuries and some impressive bowling performances, including six for 91 against Essex, have helped catch the eye of the England selectors.

The loss of their captain at this stage of the season might undermine their four-day aspirations. However, over the last 10 years Lancashire have prided themselves on being an efficiently run club, who unlike many others have always had an ear closely trained to the dressing-room. The Lancashire coach David Lloyd, a strong factor in the county's revival, believes this has been crucial in their development as a team.

"If you run a sound club," Lloyd said, "you will get the right response from the players. Maybe we are just lucky that we have a great set of lads with no difficult characters. But it does help if you minimise the things they can get upset about."

Lloyd, who likes to rationalise, believes Lancashire's approach owes much to the psychology of boxing. "I've told the lads that they have to go and impose themselves straight away, just like Chris Eubank would do. If one-day cricket is played properly it is more a science than a slog, but the thinking is better done on the field than off it.

"A lot of people reckon if you win the toss at Lord's, you win the game," Lloyd said. "Well that's rubbish. I remember Bobby Simpson saying to me that when a player is 20 years old and he's batting at No 4, he just turns up and bats, without giving it the slightest thought. Yet when he reaches 30, he starts looking at the pitch and the wind and assessing all manner of things, even before a ball is bowled.

"Why does he do it? It is still the same game he played when he was 21. Well, Lancashire are mostly under 30, but on Saturday, we'll be approaching things as if we were 21."