Startling start heralds a good year for the Roses

After many years in cricket's twilight zone, Yorkshire and Lancashire are back in the winning game. Derek Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online
The prospect of a first-ever Roses final in the Benson and Hedges Cup on 15 July may be only the first milestone on an historic summer road for Lancashire and Yorkshire. For the first time since the 1960s the red and white roses are threatening to dominate county cricket.

Both, after three matches, have 100 per cent Championship records. Lancashire lead the Sunday League and both have reached the quarter- finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup.

This sudden surge either side of the Pennines will have come as no surprise to the punters who backed the pair to win all four competitions at generous pre-season odds that will now be coming down quickly. Nor will it be too much of a surprise to that small travelling band of members who follow both clubs: the green shoots have been there for a while.

Lancashire have been extremely fortunate that the three best batsmen to emerge from Oxbridge in the last decade, Mike Atherton, John Crawley and Jason Gallian, have local loyalties. The first two, along with the off-spinning all-rounder Gary Yates, are from Manchester Grammar School; Gallian's family have a Stockport cricketing background.

At the same time their bowling has been sharpened considerably with local input. For years Wasim Akram and Phillip DeFreitas were said to be the best pair of opening bowlers in county cricket; the difficulty was they rarely fired successfully together. The arrival of two hungry young Northerners who can bowl quick and bat, Peter Martin and Glen Chapple, has meant that DeFreitas's departure has hardly been noticed while Wasim's spells are no longer so crucial to the outcome.

Where the team has been weak Lancashire have recruited aggressively, taking left-arm spinners Alex Barnett from Middlesex and Gary Keedy from Yorkshire. The coach David Lloyd has no doubts: "In terms of quality Lancashire have the best squad of players for many, many years."

He could have added that the club also took one of its most sensible decisions when they appointed Mike Watkinson, unassuming Bolton Wanderers' fan, vastly under-rated cricketer, hugely respected and popular with his peers and die-hard Red Rose loyalist, to be captain.

The one defeat Lancashire have suffered this season, a comprehensive one, was to Yorkshire. "It was only a friendly," they'll tell you in Manchester. "No such thing as a Roses friendly," they say in Leeds. "They bloody stuffed us," admitted a Lancashire player.

Yorkshire's turnaround is the more unexpected to the public but, in fact, they have been threatening a revival for three years - as captain Martyn Moxon has been writing in the club's yearbook: "Our form was better than the record suggests. We should and could have won more games."

Neither of the first two overseas players, Sachin Tendulkar and Richie Richardson, produced the expected weight of runs but the West Indies captain did make one very significant contribution. Two years ago Richardson, seeing Darren Gough smacked for two fours, walked over to a somewhat happy- go-lucky fast-medium seamer and said: "You're not going to let him do that to you, are you? Give him one!"

Gough did and found he could bowl fast enough to worry good players. The confidence that stemmed from that knowledge turned him, in no time, into a Test match-winner. As Gough developed so Craig White, durable batsman and brilliant fielder, discovered he had a gift for making the ball jump awkwardly off a length.

Peter Hartley, relieved of being the main strike bowler and Mark Robinson, relieved of too much expectation, slotted into place. Michael Bevan formed, with White on the other side of the wicket, a dazzling two-man fielding cordon, Richard Blakey began looking like a Test wicket-keeper-batsman again, David Byas took every slip catch offered and the team who lost or drew matches they should have won have become the team who wins matches they could have lost.

Moxon, who said pre-season that he wanted Yorkshire to become the Wigan of cricket, warns: "The best is yet to come. Everyone is contributing but not everyone is yet playing to their best." Bevan has yet to score big totals, White's bowling is still convalescing and Richard Stemp, one of the successes of the England A tour to India, has hardly been involved.

Competition for a place is intense. There are five strong candidates for the first batting vacancy while the bowling find of last summer, Chris Silverwood, has yet to appear.

None of this has escaped Raymond Illingworth and just how successful Lancashire and Yorkshire become will be affected by England selections. Atherton, Fairbrother, Crawley, Gallian, Martin and Chapple on one side, Gough, White and Stemp on the other are all candidates and more could emerge as the summer advances. But then, as old Tykes will tell, true champions can give five players to England and still win the title.