Cricket: Flintoff proves Lancashire's rock

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Lancashire 258 for 8 Northamptonshire 187 Lancashire win by 71 runs

WITH Lancashire's participation in the Benson & Hedges Cup quarter- finals depending as much on the outcome at Edgbaston as on beating Northamptonshire, their comfortable victory here completed only part of the equation. Nottinghamshire looked to be doing them favours further south, but there were some nail- biting moments before the news came through they had qualified in second place ahead of Warwickshire on run-rate.

Well though Northamptonshire bowled their batting was disappointing either side of a 10-over stand of 62 between Tony Penberthy and Jeremy Snape, with the left-handed Penberthy's clean striking bringing him a B&H best half-century. Truth be told, they never recovered from losing two wickets in Ian Austin's opening spell. Wasim Akram contained the middle order and two of Lancashire's youngsters, Glen Chapple and Andrew Flintoff, put paid to the tail.

The weather reflected the mood of the Lancashire innings. It began sunny, soon clouded and had brightened again by the end. For the members packing the Old Trafford pavilion, though, the sunshine scarcely survived the appearance of Michael Atherton and the 20-year-old Flintoff to open their innings. After two balls Atherton was walking disconsolately back to that same pavilion - and the first of those was a no-ball. Franklyn Rose's second, going harmlessly down the leg side, was not worthy of attention. But Atherton followed it, got a tickle and was caught one-handed by David Ripley, diving to his left. For the Northamptonshire wicket-keeper, deputising as captain for the injured Kevin Curran, it was an ideal start after he had invited Lancashire to bat.

For the hapless Atherton, though, it was another disastrous start. He will not figure in the selectors' thinking when they choose their one- day squad later this week, but when the Test matches come, England need Atherton back among the runs to open the innings against Donald and Co.

Happily for Lancashire, Flintoff is at that lovely age when cricket is a simple game. His 92 off 93 balls, well worth the Gold Award, contained two effortless sixes over long-on and seven fours. Helped by some low bounce, Northamptonshire's front-line bowlers gave little away, and John Crawley, lagging behind Flintoff, vented his frustration by driving Snape's first ball down the ground for six. Next ball he was caught at point. Throughout, in fact, Ripley's bowling changes proved potent. Penberthy's first ball bowled Neil Fairbrother, and with his first ball after changing innings he had Flintoff caught at long-off. Snape's return saw Wasim out to a catch by Rose, and when Graham Lloyd was lbw to the offspinner, Lancashire didn't look worth 250.

That they got there owed everything to Warren Hegg's unbeaten 44, which included sixes off Rose and Paul Taylor. It brought the blue skies back, and while it handed the responsibility over to Lancashire's bowlers, they proved equal to the task.