COMETH the hour, cometh the Lamb. As an international back number, the Northamptonshire captain proved a point or two here yesterday to Graham Gooch, his Essex and England counterpart.
Allan Lamb's man of the match award and NatWest best innings of 120 not out, with 12 fours from 127 balls, denied Essex what had seemed a likely victory after John Stephenson and Paul Prichard had shared an opening partnership of 198 from 46 overs.
Admirable though it was, their stand lost its way when they made only 40 runs from 10 overs before lunch, which merely matched the previous rate of four an over. With all wickets intact, acceleration had been vital.
Northamptonshire, the holders, rose from 46 for 3, casting aside the caution of the opposing openers to signal the probable end of Essex title hopes in any competition this summer.
For Northamptonshire, the hint of a treble has come alive. Fourth in the Championship and third in the Sunday league, they are the team to watch, especially after winning their past two four-day games with more than a day to spare.
Northamptonshire survived sundry misadventures before Lamb, with nimble-footed support from Mal Loye in a 30-over partnership worth 137, made amends for his team's ragged fielding and wayward bowling in the morning.
Nick Cook and Tony Penberthy, two front-liners, failed to complete their allocation, leaving Rob Bailey, an irregular off-spinner, to illustrate his qualities as a cool, all-round professional. Bailey bowled Stephenson for 90 and lured Salim Malik into lofting a catch to long-off.
Essex were 30 runs short of what should have been their target, despite Prichard's innings of 92. Nasser Hussain thundered a half-century from 43 balls, but Gooch batted at five and had little opportunity to influence the innings. Northamptonshire were relieved to escape so lightly.
This was a sunlit match in which the shine on the ball, properly used, was the best means of wicket-taking. Curtly Ambrose beat the bat regularly without finding the edge, but Derek Pringle removed Alan Fordham with his fourth delivery, having bamboozled him by late swing and seam with the previous three.
Nigel Felton was caught at short mid-wicket and Bailey, averaging 51 in limited-overs games this season, was run out by Hussain after making 31 at a run a ball. Lamb, however, took command playing his speciality, one-day strokes, working the ball into gaps, giving himself room to hit over the top and generally demoralising Essex.
Northamptonshire's win looked assured long before it became fact with 13 balls to spare in front of a 5,000 crowd. Loye, Northampton-born and a precocious 20-year-old, added 65 to a run aggregate of 205 in his two previous Sunday innings.
Kevin Curran swiftly departed, but Penberthy proved the perfect foil for Lamb in the unbroken partnership of 94 to guide Northamptonshire into the quarter-finals.
ICC song and dance, Scoreboard, page 39