Muralitharan all but secures safety

Kent 377 Lancashire 21-1
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The Independent Online

After a day of hard graft, in which Muttiah Muralitharan's 5 for 130 earned them three valuable bowling points, Lancashire's survival in the County Championship's top division is virtually assured. Only two batting collapses, or a freak win by Northamptonshire at Taunton, can alter that after bad light saw Lancashire end the day's play with their first innings on 21 for 1.

Although the follow-on target of 228 is still some way off, there are only three more sessions of play left. Given even Lancashire's feeble batting this season, six hours is surely not enough time to lose 19 wickets.

Yet, assuming that the red roses steer clear of the manure for another year, their survival in the top division is hardly deserved. Apart from Muralitharan, who has taken 50 wickets in 7 matches, their bowling lacked penetration of any kind and most of the Kent batsmen – of whom Robert Key with a career-best 132, and Paul Nixon unbeaten on 87, were the most impressive – were guilty of contributing to their downfall.

It is conceivable that Murali has played his last match for Lancashire. Sri Lanka tour England next summer so he would be unavailable until July. Meanwhile, Stuart Law, the Australian whose six years at Essex ended acrimoniously last week, has been linked with Lancashire.

Along with the rest of Europe, the players observed a three-minute silence, at 11am, for those killed in America this week. If few can yet comprehend the scale of the atrocity, Lancashire's captain, John Crawley, probably came closer than most. Crawley's brother Mark was working in a bank next door to the World Trade Centre at the time; fortunately, he was among those safely evacuated.

For Kent's batsmen, the three-minute silence acted as a watershed and having cautiously reached his fifty before the moment, Key promptly opened his shoulders after it, racing to his fourth first-class century of the season. Although dropped by Gary Keedy at mid-wicket, he looked solid, even when hooking Andrew Flintoff for the six that took him past his previous highest score of 125.

Key is one of the 16 players who will take up their places in the Academy this winter. A powerful and positive striker of the ball, he is just the kind the raw material that Rod Marsh, the Academy's new director, is hoping to work with.

Key's departure yesterday, stumped as he aimed wildly over cover, allowed Murali to return and the off-spinner quickly added Mark Ealham and Matthew Fleming to his list.

Only Nixon, playing some audacious reverse sweeps off the Sri Lankan, held Lancashire up as the three bowling points that should keep them up were secured.