Lancashire on the brink after 73 years of rain, England call-ups and snobbery

Red Rose county is poised to clinch its first outright championship title since 1934. Paul Newman reports
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The Independent Online

For 1993 read 2007. For Alex Ferguson read Mike Watkinson. For Steve Bruce read Mark Chilton. For Old Trafford read Old Trafford. Fourteen years after their footballing neighbours across the Chester Road ended a 26-season wait to win the championship, Lancashire's cricketers today go in search of the victory that would conclude an even longer quest for their sport's greatest national prize.

It is 57 years since Lancashire got their hands on the county championship, having shared the title with Surrey in 1950, and 73 years since they won it outright. By a nice quirk of fate Peter Eckersley's 1934 team secured their title at The Oval, which is where the team of 2007 play their final match.

In theory Sussex, Durham, Hampshire and Yorkshire could still win the tightest title race for years, but for Watkinson, Lancashire's cricket manager, and Chilton, the captain, the equation is simple. With second-placed Sussex six points behind, victory over Surrey by 17 points or more would guarantee the title's return to Manchester.

When Eckersley's men earned Old Trafford's fifth championship in nine seasons in 1934, nobody could have imagined the barren decades that were to follow. Throughout their history Lancashire have produced great cricketers and enjoyed excellent support (with 12,000 members they are the envy today of almost every other county). And, in latter years, won many a one-day competition. The county championship, however, has regularly slipped from their grasp.

Not even Jack Bond's all-stars of the early 1970s could win the domestic game's biggest prize, even though Clive Lloyd, Farokh Engineer and company were all but unstoppable in limited-overs cricket. Another fine generation of players, including Mike Atherton and Wasim Akram, also failed to deliver the title and in 2004 Lancashire suffered the ignominy of relegation to the Second Division.

Nevertheless, five second-place finishes in the last nine seasons has been a decent record and under the affable Chilton Lancashire have timed their late run this summer to perfection. Last week's nine-wicket win over Warwickshire took them top for the first time (see panel).

Although England duties have limited the appearances of Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson, the 2007 squad has strength in depth and a good balance. Muttiah Muralitharan, Dominic Cork, Stuart Law and Glen Chapple bring hard-nosed experience to the team, Luke Sutton has been an inspirational wicketkeeper-batsman and the likes of Paul Horton and Steven Croft have emerged from the junior ranks.

Jim Cumbes, Lancashire's long-serving chief executive, gives particular credit to the manager and captain. "Mike Watkinson was the first full-time cricket manager we've had who knew the league set-up in Lancashire and was intent on bringing young players through from the county," Cumbes said.

"Both Mike and Mark Chilton have had their critics. Mark had a battle with his own form early on. Some people have always said that the captaincy here is a poisoned chalice. It's not dissimilar to what Manchester United experienced. They had this millstone around their necks, having gone 26 years without a championship. It's been even longer for us and just as great a burden, particularly as we've often been tipped to win the championship. I think there were five major writers or broadcasters who tipped us to win in the season we ended up getting relegated. This year, when we weren't expected to win it, we find ourselves leading the championship with one game to go. I just hope we've hit the top at the right time."

Although Cumbes agrees that other counties have had similar problems, he believes international call-ups have affected Lancashire over the years. "We've consistently lost a lot of players to England," he said. "I think teams like Sussex have won the title in recent times because they've had very good county players who probably aren't quite good enough to play for England and are therefore always available to them."

Atherton, who was an England regular for most of his Lancashire career, is not so sure. "We lost players here and there, but before central contracts you played a lot more county cricket," he said yesterday. "I would still play 14 or 15 games for Lancashire every year as well as play for England. I think things were slightly more happy-go-lucky in my day than they are now. We had a lot of excellent players, but also a lot of us had grown up together. Going back to play for Lancashire was always a lot of fun for me. I'm not saying we didn't take it seriously, but it never felt like a grind or a job. Maybe we weren't as professionally committed as we might have been."

Ray Illingworth once suggested that Lancashire and Yorkshire should be given a 30-point start over their rivals because the northern climate meant they had more rain-affected matches. Cumbes believes the weather has sometimes counted against Lancashire. "Clubs down the western side of Britain – ourselves, Worcestershire, Glamorgan and possibly even Somerset – undoubtedly experience more inclement weather than counties on the eastern side," he said – but acknowledges that four-day cricket has made it less of a factor.

Engineer, now a Lancashire vice-president, said that the combination of three-day cricket and poor weather used to make declarations decisive. "The trouble was that with myself and Clive Lloyd in the team we didn't get many sporting declarations," he said. "On the rare occasions we did we usually reached our target with something to spare."

Before the 1960s there were other reasons for the lack of success. Lancashire's obsession with class and etiquette – Peter Marner, a good all-rounder, was once sent home from a match after appearing at breakfast without his blazer – was often at the expense of the professionalism of counties like Yorkshire and Surrey.

Lancashire were one of the last sides to prefer amateur captains. In 1962, when cricket finally did away with the distinction between amateurs and professionals, they were led by an amateur, Joe Blackledge, who did not have any first-class experience. They won two of their 32 matches.

The committee then provoked a members' revolt two years later by advertising in The Times for a new captain at a time when the team contained a number of potential leaders. The forward-thinking Cedric Rhoades and the popular Brian Statham were subsequently appointed chairman and captain respectively and their encouragement of younger players paved the way for the successes of the 1970s.

Today Lancashire are much more aware of their public responsibilities and Watkinson is hoping his team can at last reward their large fan base. "The one thing we are always mindful of is that when you represent Lancashire and think of the championship, you're playing for followers not just in the Manchester area, but all around the world," he said. "If we can pull this off, we realise that it will mean a lot to many people."