Atherton stands firm as Essex made to struggle

Lancashire 230-5 Essex
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The Independent Online

Mark Ramprakash's suggestion, that the Second Division of the CricInfo County Championship should be no longer regarded as first-class cricket, will ring warning bells among more than just those counties relegated last year.

The threat of being consigned to minor cricket will alarm more than one county at present enjoying First Division status. The implication, of a football-style Premiership, is enormous.

Essex, for instance, are rightly proud of promotion and pleased, says their captain Ronnie Irani, with the young players emerging. They must also be happy with their membership levels and Irani maintains that the club should now be thinking of the Championship; neutrals, however, may ask how long they can survive without importing some highly-paid stars.

Their bowling contained Lancashire, with the exception of Mike Atherton, for most of yesterday, under grey skies and on a pitch of increasing turn. Their seamers, led by the perceptive, hard-working Irani, bothered all but England's premier batsman. However, their spinners enjoyed enough to have their own batsmen worrying about the prospect of facing the Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan later today.

Only Ricky Anderson, with his outswing, had Atherton occasionally groping. Otherwise, the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, will be pleased to know, the old man was in superb form, the famous cover-drive operating like a well-oiled, perfectly-programmed machine. Lancashire needed him.

Mark Chilton was all but becalmed for 21 overs before edging behind. Mark Crawley, attempting to give the innings some momentum, drove and edged on to his stumps. Andrew Flintoff looked good, driving and lifting Irani for two well-timed fours before becoming the first of Peter Such's victims, edging an arm ball to slip.

Atherton had made 51 out of 87 for 3 before Such's short duel with Neil Fairbrother, off-spinner to left-hander, became a contest of class, eventually won by the bowler.

The slow left-armer Mike Davies, who may have been remodelled by Charlie Childs, accounted for Joe Scuderi, leg before, a decision unpopular with, considering the weather, a good crowd.

Atherton's first century of this rain-washed summer, his 29th for Lancashire, the 54th of his career, arrived off his 222nd ball and contained 15 fours. With an ebullient Warren Hegg, who reached 35 not out by the close, he brought Lancashire into prosperity with an unbroken stand of 74 as the sun at last broke through after tea, shining on an innings of considerable merit. His chanceless, unbeaten 125 was a timely rehearsal for the sterner examinations to follow against Australia and, in the short term, it could guide Lancashire to their third consecutive Championship win.