Warren at his finest

Lancs 437 and 280-9 dec Northants 290 and 29-1
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PROVIDED too many of their leading lights do not return from England duty with broken bones and broken hearts, this could still be Lancashire's long-awaited Championship season.

Their chances of a first outright title since 1934, however, hinge very heavily on their ability to beat the early season leaders in this pivotal match at Old Trafford.

Despite narrowly failing to force Northamptonshire to follow-on yesterday, Lancashire's prospects of achieving the victory that would put them right on the shoulders of the pace-setters are somewhere between good and very good. Lancashire took the last five Northants wickets for the addition of 78 runs in the morning, the visitors avoiding the necessity of batting again immediately by a mere three runs.

If Lancashire fail to get the win they need from this match, they will look back on some free gifts that enabled Northants to avoid that follow- on.

Wasim Akram was as fast and hostile as his captain, Mike Watkinson, could have wished, but his total of 26 runs conceded in no-balls during the innings made all the difference to Northants reaching their target. Six of those runs came through a bizarre incident when the Pakistani pace- man, who had already ended David Capel's stubborn innings - caught behind in his first over of the day - flattened Andy Roberts' stumps.

Wasim had already been called for over-stepping, though, and matters were made worse by the ball racing away to the boundary for another four runs. Roberts did not hang around for long before he was bowled by a delivery from Watkinson that turned sharply from the worn patch outside off-stump.

Watkinson's merits as an attacking off-spinner were particularly relevant in view of the likelihood of his being required for a battered England's next Test, here at Old Trafford, at the end of the month.

Less impressive were the couple of loose balls which Russell Warren dispatched for a four and six in succession, taking him within sight of a first Championship century, but more importantly edging Northants closer to their mark.

Warren's admirable innings, his best of the season, ended when Wasim's in-swinging yorker took his foot and his stumps in that order and Anil Kumble fell to another Watkinson off-break with the follow-on figure still four tantalising runs away.

Neil Mallender eventually took Northants past it with a boundary that streaked at bootlace height past Neil Fairbrother at first slip. Mallender averaged 30 with the bat for Somerset last season and has been a useful tail-end accumulator since his return to Northants at the start of this season. He went for six this time, trapped leg before by Ian Austin, but he had done his job.

The job then for Lancashire consisted of building on their lead of 147 at a sufficient rate to allow themselves rather more than a full day in order to bowl out Northants. They made a convincing start to the task, despite the early loss of Nick Speak, caught behind off Paul Taylor in the third over.

John Crawley, another Lancastrian whose claims for a Test place on his home ground must now be difficult to resist, was once more in pugnacious form, following his glorious 173 in the first innings with a half-century off 69 balls.

He was not without blemish, giving two chances off Capel in his twenties, the first a routine caught-and-bowled and the second a difficult one-handed catch to Kevin Curran at slip. That apart, Crawley hit the ball with all his usual power and certainty, until he was stumped giving Robert Bailey the charge on 64.

A steady but irrelevant loss of wickets - four of them to the standing captain and occasional off-spinner Bailey - failed to slow Lancashire's progress.

Watkinson was able to declare with one wicket left, following a solid contribution from Steve Titchard and limited-overs-style cameos from Fairbrother and Wasim.

That left Northants with 10 overs to negotiate before close of play. Richard Montgomerie gloved a riser from Wasim to Hegg and they now face a long battle on Monday if they are to deny Lancashire.