Lancashire 161 (Tongue 5-63, Parnell 3-42) and 8 for 0 need 306 runs to beat Worcestershire 222 and 252 (Parnell 50, Bailey 3-53, Maharaj 3-64, Onions 3-76)
Ask a county batsman which of his innings is his favourite and you will not always be told of jewelled centuries on ivory stages. Quite frequently you will hear instead of the knock that made a difference. Last month Alex Milton scored a century on his County Championship debut but he did so in a losing cause, albeit it included a 136-run last wicket partnership with Steve Magoffin. On the second day of this match, Milton's third in Division One, he made a mere 37 but shared the 61-run stand for the fifth wicket with Ben Cox that has probably tipped this game decisively in Worcestershire's favour.
Milton was fortunate that Cox was his batting partner. The Worcestershire wicketkeeper is one of the most underestimated cricketers on the circuit and his 40 took a little of the pressure off his younger colleague. But the pair came together when their team were 56 for 4 and their lead over Lancashire was a mere 117. Their stand sucked much of the venom out of Lancashire and it was the best of six significant alliances which all but filled an absorbing last two sessions at Trafalgar Road.
Six overs before the end of the day Worcestershire were finally dismissed for 252 and the home side opened with a nightwatchman, Toby Lester, and Haseeb Hameed, who remains on a pair. Lancashire still need a further 306 runs to win and no one with a full complement of marbles fancies their chances.
The pitch did not ease greatly throughout the day. It has never been a desperately difficult pitch but Brett D'Oliveira's dismissal to a magnificent ball from Graham Onions which landed on middle and off before seaming away showed that there has always been a wicket in this surface. But both Milton and Cox adapted to the conditions in the manner of old pros; the balls they kept out or let go were just as important as those they cut or clipped to the white fences around this great ground. Cox, in particular, was prepared to wear a few on his body and to bat through a fine spell by Lester. As for Milton, when he considers how his life has been spent, he may well conclude that the two-and-a-quarter hours he took gritting it out at Trafalgar Road have been among the most valuable.
It certainly set the tone for the rest of the innings. Tom Bailey, who had taken three early wickets, was not as effective as the ball got older, and later batsmen found batting a slightly more agreeable task than Worcestershire's top order. Ed Barnard batted well once again, albeit for a mere 24 and Josh Tongue's 20 helped him add yet another 26 for the last wicket with Dillon Pennington.
But the applause of this good-natured and knowledgeable crowd greeted the batting of Wayne Parnell, who made 50 off 74 balls and hit Keshav Maharaj for a straight six into the media tent, where most of the inhabitants were watching the cricket. Parnell's excellent choice of shot throughout his innings revealed his pedigree and showed how he has bought into Worcestershire's appealing ethos of hard work and great enjoyment.
And as the afternoon progressed, bowlers toiled for the first time in this match. Maharaj's spell from the Grosvenor Road End claimed three wickets but it did not change the pattern established by Cox and Milton. Likewise, Graham Onions removed Barnard and Ben Twohig but not before they had strengthened Worcestershire position. Lancashire's bowlers and fielders became quieter even as the noise from the marquees increased. Perhaps they were considering the size of the task facing them; perhaps some of those thoughts could not be voiced in the changing room. Even as Worcestershire's players view the prospect that they might beat Yorkshire and Lancashire in the space of nine glorious days, Dane Vilas and his players are pondering a different fate.
Of course the home side's task would not be so formidable had not D'Oliveira's bowlers secured a 61-run first innings lead. Thus the Worcestershire bowlers could be pleased with their effort in taking the last five Lancashire wickets for 65 in little more than an hour's graft. Josh Tongue, who has the ability to extract bounce from the blandest surface, took the first and last wickets to fall on Thursday, and finished with 5 for 53.
Once again, though, Lancashire dug their own graves before obligingly interring themselves and pulling the turf across the plots. Josh Bohannon, for example, had played with purpose and intent for his 13 before he turned blind and was run out by Barnard's throw when thinking of a third run. But this is a game which has never been short of gallows humour and it is the season when the light is dying, and with it, the green hopes of springtime.