Cricket: Fear and losing at Old Trafford: Guy Hodgson explains how a season of under-achievement has left a county riven by internal strife

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THERE are few things more miserable than a cricket ground in the rain, and it was lashing down at Old Trafford this week. Even without the rain, though, there are few places that at present seem less happy than the headquarters of Lancashire Cricket Club.

Lancastrians used to watch the feuds on the other side of the Pennines with barely concealed smugness. But when did Yorkshire contrive, as Lancashire have just done, to lose a manager, a captain and a leading strike bowler in the space of a few days?

Lancashire's chairman, Bob Bennett, claims that there is still harmony in the dressing-room: 'It may not seem likely from the outside but the spirit is very good.' Recent developments hardly bear this out. In cricketing terms, there have been two and half rotten years after four and half spectacular ones. A team containing the England and Pakistani captains and some of the most talented youngsters in the game should achieve more than a losing appearance in the Benson & Hedges final and 14th place in the championship. Since the season ended, the captain, Neil Fairbrother, has seen fit to fall on his sword. So has the manager (and former captain), David Hughes. The England pace bowler Phil DeFreitas has also left. He cited family reasons, but many members see his departure as a reflection of the present troubles.

All this has been happening at a countywhich, with 14,300 members, is by far the biggest in the land. They alone bring in more than pounds 400,000 a year. But money does not necessarily bring success. When bat hits ball at Old Trafford next season it will be 60 years since the club last won the County Championship outright, and even the regular flow of one- day trophies has come to a halt recently.

Lancashire began the decade seemingly poised for greatness. In 1990 they won both the NatWest and the Benson & Hedges Cups, and they appeared to have the resources to make a realistic attempt on the four-day title. 'When I retired four years ago it seemed the team was on the verge of becoming very good,' says Jack Simmons, a player for more than 20 years and now a committee member. 'It had the potential to be even better than the one I played in during the Seventies.'

Alan Ormrod, the manager until he was sacked in August 1992, adds: 'It was as if someone had sprinkled stardust on the place. We were on a roll and we couldn't see us coming off it. The championship would have come. We were all geared up for it.'

Unfortunately the gear came unstuck. Some say that the trouble started when Hughes, then captain, was omitted from the 1991 Benson & Hedges Cup final team, but this does not ring true with the people involved. They see any dressing-room discontent as stemming from the decision that same summer to fine Wasim Akram pounds 1,000 after an exchange with an umpire following warnings for persistent short- pitched bowling in a match against Warwickshire.

'That was the beginning of the end,' Ormrod says. 'The fine was not a true valuation of the misdemeanour, and that got to the dressing-room. From that day on - and we were second in the championship at the time - the spirit was not the same. There were about 1,500 people there that day, and when you reflect on the fines that have been handed out at international level, where the whole world is watching, pounds 1,000 is extortionate.

'He was burninghimself out to get Lancashire a bowling point on a wicket that was probably the flattest of the season. The players knew that and they offered to contribute to Akram's fine. You don't treat your star player like that.'

Other decisions have not helped. Releasing Graeme Fowler and Paul Allott at the end of 1992 deprived the club of experience that has not been fully compensated for by the promise of the next generation. 'You need a blend,' Simmons says. 'Liverpool football club used to make changes gradually, introducing younger players over a period of time. This year our senior pros were Neil Fairbrother and Mike Watkinson, and they're only just past 30. We didn't have a disastrous season - we got to a one-day final after all - but perhaps we would have done better to hang on to a few older players.'

Next year they won't even have Fairbrother. 'Neil got so disillusioned after losing the B & H final that things went all wrong,' Ormrod says. 'He didn't have the zest for his own game, he wasn't stirring to win like he used to.' And there is disillusionment in other quarters, too. David Lloyd's appointment as coach is being questioned because the former England batsman will be away for 18 days next summer working as a commentator. 'A part-time coach,' one member said outside Old Trafford this week. 'How amateurish can you get?' There is also disquiet that no one will replace Hughes as manager.

The members are stirring, and there are rumours that a petition is being circulated that could lead to an emergency general meeting. Meanwhile, attention is focusing on the annual meeting on 11 December. The unhappy run may not be over yet.

(Photographs omitted)