Cricket: Mighty Muralitharan mops up

Lancashire 492 and 93-2 Hampshire 181 and 402 Lancashire win by 8 wickets

LANCASHIRE'S recent resurgence owes a fair amount to the wiles of the Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan who has now taken 55 wickets in five matches. Unfortunately it all ends shortly.

Muralitharan is scheduled to return to Sri Lanka for the Test series against Australia after Lancashire's championship match with Derbyshire next month. His has been a weighty contribution, even if he has been on the losing side twice, and it will be interesting to see if Lancashire can maintain their run of form after his departure.

For the fourth time he claimed seven wickets in an innings as Hampshire subsided, tamely in the end, although they had put up a remarkably steely show in forcing Lancashire to bat again. But they needed to leave far more than the 92 runs for victory.

Given the way he smashed an unbeaten 49 off 23 balls, Andy Flintoff could have put Hampshire out of their misery sooner. As it was everyone had to sit through a dozen or so overs from Michael Atherton and John Crawley as they negotiated tricky opening spells from Nixon McLean and Peter Hartley. The fall of Atherton for 15 and the next man, Neil Fairbrother, in successive overs brought the young Goliath Flintoff to the wicket and shortly after that the remnants of the crowd were not just on the edge of their seats, but under them as the 6ft 5in all-rounder peppered his surroundings - one of his three sixes hit the Pavilion balcony and rebounded, almost decapitating a couple of spectators on its way back to the outfield.

None of it would have been necessary had it not been for Hampshire's captain Robin Smith. He it was who steered Hampshire back in front, albeit briefly, after they had looked likely to capitulate inside three days. He was moving towards his first hundred of the season, but, as has happened on six previous occasions when he has passed fifty this summer, was denied the century.

Stephenson had just gone cheaply, the first of Muralitharan's wickets, caught by Flintoff at silly mid-off when Smith followed, again pushing forward to the Sri Lankan to be nonchalantly taken one-handed by Flintoff.

Muralitharan could not be stopped after that. He sliced through the tail, although much credit has to be given to Ian Austin for his excellent catch to dismiss Nixon McLean. The West Indies fast bowler top edged a ball into the ionosphere over deep midwicket, and Austin sprinted towards the boundary and took a stunning catch over his shoulder. By his second over after lunch, Muralitharan had mopped it all up to finish with 7-114 and Lancashire then emerged to wrap up the win and maximum points.

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