Lancashire are thwarted as Huggins digs in

Northants 298 and 113-1 Lancashire 504-9 dec Match drawn

After the frustrations of last season, Lancashire began their quest for the 2004 County Championship with an all too familiar result as Northamptonshire batted out a draw here yesterday. The title favourites provided evidence of why they have a right to be top of the bookmakers' lists, but the third-day washout ultimately frustrated them.

They forced the follow on, dismissing Northamptonshire for 298 as the spinners, Carl Hooper and Gary Keedy, made good use of a typical Wantage Road pitch. When their hosts went out to bat again, however, there was scarcely long enough to obtain a result, even had Northamptonshire's first innings collapse been repeated.

Then, six wickets fell for 51 runs in 21.1 overs. But the home side's young openers, Mark Powell and Tom Huggins, negotiated 35 overs of the second innings before Lancashire could make their one breakthrough. Powell took the lead role but Huggins, 21 last month and making his Championship debut, has every right to feel pleased to have given sensible support. Once he began to feel at ease, he even allowed himself a shot or two, finishing with an unbeaten 38.

But Lancashire had plenty of positives to discuss on the coach to Hove, where the champions, Sussex, will attempt to put their prospects in a different perspective when the second round of games begins tomorrow.

After Hooper had followed the lead of Iain Sutcliffe and Stuart Law to provide a third first-innings hundred on Saturday came evidence yesterday of Keedy's well-being. The left-armer's 60 first-class wickets made 2003 his best season, his total equal with England's Gareth Batty and only six fewer than Jason Brown of Northamptonshire, who was the country's most successful English slow bowler. Keedy, 29, has taken his time to mature but he now bowls with visible confidence, the one quality he previously lacked. Three wickets as Northamptonshire fell apart yesterday will have put him in good heart.

Earlier, the seamers had played their part, Peter Martin nipping one back to end Tim Roberts's hopes of turning a career-best into a maiden century against his former county, before Usman Afzaal nicked Kyle Hogg to second slip one ball after completing a debut half-century. Given what followed, it was as just as well that David Sales marked his first Championship match as captain with a 133-ball 84.

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