Wily Watkinson turns the screw

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LANCASHIRE, led from the front by Mike Watkinson, their all-rounder captain, made purposeful progress yesterday towards a fourth Championship win this season. By blending Wasim Akram's pace with Watkinson's off-spin, they captured the last six Essex first innings wickets for a mere 58 runs in the first hour and a quarter to enforce the follow-on. And when Watkinson spun out the cream of the Essex top-order batting in a beautifully controlled spell after lunch, the visitors had only their pride to play for.

Avoiding an innings defeat has taken them a long way towards achieving that. The lower order redeemed itself after its morning disgrace, and Darren Robinson's sensible 86 proved that Essex have another sturdily built opener around whom to compile an innings.

The extent to which it was Lancashire's day is best illustrated by the way in which they dismissed Graham Gooch twice within an hour. For the Essex supporter, there had been something reassuring about the sight of Gooch plodding through the pavilion gate at 11am with 115 not out against his name. To the Lancastrian, his return for the second time that morning prompted the expectation of victory within three days.

Essex, needing another 157 runs to save the follow-on when they resumed first thing, quickly lost their nightwatchman, Mark Ilott, who edged Wasim into the safe hands of Jason Gallian at second slip. However, Gooch and Ronnie Irani soon had the score ticking along and it came as something of a surprise when Gooch, leaning back to cut, top-edged Watkinson to the wicket-keeper. His 123, from 219 balls, included 13 fours as well as Friday's two sixes, and the members rose to applaud him in, as they had the previous evening.

A brace of bouncers had been Wasim's way of welcoming Irani back to Old Trafford, but after that initial discomfort, Irani batted well against his old county, as he did again in the second innings. But, with Robert Rollins lasting no longer than three balls against Watkinson, and Peter Such and Steve Andrew capable of no more than cameos of incompetence against Wasim, Irani's tenure was strictly limited. Finally, going down the pitch to Gary Keedy's left-arm spin, he was beaten by the flight and Warren Hegg smartly made the stumping a formality.

The last thing Essex needed was to lose Gooch to the third ball of their second innings. Unable to do more than parry a sharply rising delivery from Darren Shadford to Gallian at second slip, the former England opener making a notable maiden wicket on the bowler's first-class debut.

From as early as the third over of the morning, Watkinson, from the Warwick Road end, had been extracting the kind of turn that has dressing-room nerves fluttering. Not that the pitch was any more culpable than it should have been at this stage of the proceedings. Rather it was Watkinson's skill, classically drifting the ball away as well as spinning it, that kept the unrelenting pressure on Essex. Mark Waugh and Paul Prichard gave their wickets away by rashly playing across Watkinson's line, while Nasser Hussain was bowled by a delivery that turned extravagantly. With a career- best score of 161 in Lancashire's innings, and seven wickets to date, this has been a match to remember for Watkinson. Those who have him in their Fantasy League team must know thing or two more than England selectors past and present.