The cinch hitters

Nick Knight, of Warwickshire, tips Lancashire to lord it in a compelling final
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The Independent Online
There is barely a cigarette paper between the two sides who will contest the Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord's on Saturday. Northamptonshire and Lancashire combine the key elements of one-day cricket. They use pinch- hitters effectively, they bat way down the order, they have deep bowling strength, they field exceptionally.

Both deserve to be contesting the first domestic showpiece of the summer because, so far, they have been the best one-day sides. True, it took them two days each in the semi-finals but they were pretty effective over that distance, too, winning games they might have lost. Resilience is another asset.

They both know that games can be won from all sorts of pessimistic positions. Northants were in dire trouble against Warwickshire, six wickets down, barely 100 on the board and all their main batsmen gone. They were put back in the match by the seventh-wicket partnership between Tim Walton and Tony Penberthy. This showed their batting depth. Walton then exemplified their fielding prowess with two lovely run-outs on the second day which perhaps cost Warwickshire the game.

But Lancashire have twice this season won B and H games off the last ball. They beat Warwickshire to decide the group winners, getting 312 to do so. Then, in that thrilling match at Old Trafford, they inflicted a heart-breaking defeat on Yorkshire after it seemed they might be out of it. On both occasions the winning runs were struck by Peter Martin, though maybe he would be grateful to avoid having to go for a hat-trick.

The way both finalists have adapted to the new regulations has been important to their progress. The fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs have made the art of pinch-hitting greatly significant. Northants and Lancashire have tended to use shot-making middle-order batsmen in the role rather than out and out sloggers. David Capel and Mike Watkinson are both experienced players, aware how to pace an innings there. Effectively operated, those first 15 overs can make the start of an innings much brighter than usual as Lord's may find out. Expect both sides to show how it can be done.

Not that either side is short of an effective new-ball attack. Lancashire have an array of seamers and have used Ian Austin at the start of an innings this summer. More unsung than some of his colleagues, he has done an excellent job. The Northants pair, Paul Taylor and Curtly Ambrose, complement each other well. Ambrose could be the substantial difference. His potency can only be strengthened by the knowledge that this might be his last appearance at Lord's.

The pitch there has tended to prompt cause for optimism in bowlers this season. In their parlance, it's done a bit. Ambrose is unlikely to need a second invitation to take advantage of such conditions and a dominant early spell could be decisive.

It is a difficult one to call. The blend of experience and ebullient youth in Northamptonshire's ranks is compelling. Rob Bailey, in his first summer as captain, looks unflappable and may need to be. And he has the old warrior, John Emburey, to call on for advice (not to mention some tidy bowling). Kevin Curran and Capel have been there before, Walton is coming off the back of a glittering semi-final, Russell Warren has grown into the wicketkeeper-batsman's job.

Lancashire are the holders. They are a slightly younger side than Northants and their batting line-up exudes class. Several are Test players but somebody like Graham Lloyd, who isn't, can be equally effective in limited overs cricket. Warren Hegg, their wicketkeeper-batsman, led them to semi-final victory. Of course, Ambrose could win it for Northants but in a high-scoring game Lancashire should just edge home and retain the trophy.