Lancashire 96 for 5 (Tongue 3-36) trail Worcestershire 222 (D'Oliveira 65, Bailey 4-41) by 126 runs
The last hurrahs of high summer are rarely blazoned more joyfully than this. And seldom are they more frenetic. For the cricketers this was a vital match between two counties scrapping to avoid dismal relegation. For the spectators, some of whom may be watching their only first-class cricket of the season, it was a day on which the importance of the game was matched by a sense of occasion. Many of them welcomed the banishment of the drizzled early morning quite as heartily as they greeted the fall of Worcestershire wickets.
The first sun cream was sighted at 12.45; but the first Lancashire collapse took place nearly four hours later and the loss of two prime wickets four overs before the close has left Worcestershire in the ascendant. Nevertheless, you can be assured there will be no shortage of people rolling up on Thursday to watch a game that is unlikely to stretch into Saturday.
The day began with the sides in states of mutual astonishment. Having included both Matt Parkinson and Stephen Parry in their squad, Lancashire left out both whereas Worcestershire opted for the slow left-armer Ben Twohig rather than Ross Whiteley. The visitors were taken aback that their opponents had gone into the game relying on only the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj, the third slow bowler to join the county in a month, whereas Lancashire were shocked that Worcestershire wanted to toss and then opted to bat when they won it.
The day's cricket suggested that Lancashire's choice had been wise. Trafalgar Road may be renowned as a spinner's pitch but Maharaj bowled just 12 wicketless and the conditions throughout the day plainly favoured bowlers like Tom Bailey and Josh Tongue whose high actions extracted plenty of bounce from a responsive but far from impossible surface.
The morning was Lancashire's, too. Having been asked to field, they were more than content to take four wickets with Joe Clarke's impulsive drive on the stroke of lunch settling the session in Lancashire's favour. Toby Lester's most significant contribution to the day was to have Daryl Mitchell caught behind for 9 in the ninth over and it turned out that the best thing Maharaj would do was run out Alex Milton for a duck with a flat throw from deep square leg.
Tom Fell batted pleasantly for 31 before he failed to cover a ball from Bailey which nipped back off the seam, but that dismissal was a portent for an afternoon in which the Preston seamer would take three further wickets, the most important of them that of Brett D'Oliveira whose 65 was full of the wristy cuts and the small man's improvisations.
The crowd settled into its cricket and most of them relished every Worcestershire wicket grateful that the summer's heat had abated sufficiently to allow the game to assume its traditional aspect. For there were weeks when this had not seemed likely. In late June Trafalgar Road was offering its own version of the The Great British Bake Off. Throughout many weeks the outfield resembled an enormous rich-tea biscuit and the ground still bears the scars of its summer scorching. Even by lunchtime on this first day the players' flannels carried the marks of desperate dives on bare ground.
Bailey's wickets and the support he was given by Lester and Graham Onions saw Worcestershire bundled out for 222 just after tea. Ed Barnard batted nearly two hours for his 24 runs but a single batting bonus point seemed a poor reward for his patience. However, Lancashire supporters have spent their summer watching their side collapse and there was a bleak air of reacquaintance when both Haseeb Hameed and Rob Jones were taken at slip for nought in the second over of the innings.
Steven Croft also departed without changing the pattern of the game when he thick-edged Wayne Parnell to Twohig at fourth slip but the counter-attack mounted by Alex Davies and Dane Vilas in a 54-run stand appeared likely to leave Lancashire in a slight ascendancy before Vilas fell victim to the damn-fool bad luck which bedevils teams in trouble.
Just as spectators were counting their abundant blessings in preparation for the close, Davies drove the ball straight at Tongue whose boot deflected the ball onto the stumps with Vilas yards out of his ground. Two balls later, Davies played no shot to Tongue and was leg before for 47. And thus even as supporters were enjoying one of their season's last high days, the teams were struggling to avoid relegation and the gloom that settles on following winters.