The sun was bright, the beer cold, the tree-ringed ground a picture, but the atmosphere at Castle Park was funereal. Essex are a poor side playing badly, and the silence both on the field and off as Lancashire tried to bat them out of the game spoke volumes.
Even the visiting batsmen spoke in whispers, as if anxious not to intrude on private grief. Not that it stopped two of them filling their boots, for while Essex's relegation is assured, Lancashire could in theory still be sucked down with them. A win here would make them safe, and on this evidence they will probably get it.
Oddly enough, Essex could not have made a better start. Having scored 348 runs in his previous Championship game the Lancashire captain, John Crawley, was bang in top form, but Justin Bishop has been one of his county's few successes this season, and in his first over the young left-armer uprooted Crawley's middle stump with a ball which swung back into him.
When, half an hour later, Andy Flintoff skied a pull off Ronnie Irani, Lancashire might have been in trouble, but Essex have lacked penetration all season and though the ball continued to swing, the wicket was flat.
In short, circumstances were ideal for the 37-year-old Neil Fairbrother, in what could be his valedictory year – he will make a decision after the last game – to score his fourth century of the season. The experienced left-hander timed the ball sweetly from the off, and though initially circumspect, by his standards anyway, sixes off the off-spinners Peter Such and Tim Mason after lunch took him past 50 and he went to his hundred, the 46th of his Lancashire career, off 189 balls. Given that it was also his fifth hunbdred against Essex, the southern county will not be too sorry if "Harvey" calls it a day.
Fairbrother was accompanied in a stand of over 200 by the opener Mark Chilton, who slowly and, for the most part painfully, scratched his way to 98. A large proportion of his 13 boundaries came off the edge, and he was dropped at gully on 14 and just before Ashley Cowan finally caught him off Peter Such, on 98.
He should also have been run out on 44, but as Such stretched to take off the bails, he slipped. Flat out on the ground, the bowler still had plenty of time and reached for the stumps – but was about an inch shy. Essex have been coming up short all season.
Shortly before the close Irani did at least induce Fairbrother to edge a tired legside glance to the wicketkeeper, and with Such picking up the wicket of Graham Lloyd, the score looked a little more respectable than the performance warranted.Reuse content