Yesterday, it was discovered that the stumps were missing at Stanley Park just before the scheduled start of play.
Over the following eight or so hours, there were doubtless times when Lancashire fans wished that no one had bothered to look for the bloody things. The locals may have thought that the rain that delayed the start of our day’s cricket by 45 minutes and then temporarily paused it in the middle of the day would hose down for approximately 36 hours. Anything to avoid having to watch their team crumble like a bombed-out apartment building and then provide the worst outfield performance of the season.
But Essex is the kind of team that pounces on these flaws like a hungry piranha. Their seam attack brilliantly took advantage of Lancashire’s batting weaknesses to gain a first-innings lead of 137, and in the final third of the day, Dan Lawrence, the extra batter in England’s Ashes squad who departs for Surrey at the end of the season, launched a quite savage assault on Keaton Jennings’ discouraged bowlers and demoralized fielders.
Lawrence, who took advantage of the home team’s weakness, hit nine sixes, lost at least three balls in the adjacent park, reached his third century with his fifth maximum, hit four more sixes, and was caught at long-on by Jennings for 135 after 125 balls in the final over of the day.
In contrast, Doug Bracewell was unbeaten at 61 and had struck four sixes in his innings. The pair had combined 106 runs in eight balls or less, but Bracewell will only be remembered as a minor player in this day’s sport. Lawrence will be on the minds of headline writers, Essex fans will be wondering whether their team can secure a fourth victory of the year, and Lancashire supporters will be praying for safety from the storm.
The residents’ sleep will be tormented by the savage annihilation of Lancashire’s first innings by the Essex attack, but cricket is rarely so accommodating. The quicker bowlers under Tom Westley went to work with a rare will, despite being hindered by the Kookaburra ball, which looks to be despised throughout the county game.
After surviving the newish ball and reaching 76 for 1 sixes, Lancashire lost eight wickets for 45 runs each side of lunch, and it took Phil Salt’s six over square leg to save them from an Essex follow-on that might not have been necessary in any event. Four of the wickets were taken by Sam Cook, while Paul Walter also got three in eight balls right before the first break. The scorecard could have been beaten at times by the speed of the cricket, but Lancashire did not supply those accessories for the third day of this match. They were quite wise to do so.
The coaches in Lancashire shouldn’t be so understanding. Some of Lancashire’s top order had to be worked out by Essex’s seamers, who bowled with the ruthlessness of players who saw an opportunity to gain a match-winning edge. For instance, Jennings pushed at a ball from Cook that nipped away and went to Matt Critchley at second slip via the edge.
The batter was nearly responsible for other dismissals. Dane Vilas was one of the latter group; nonetheless, he was soundly defeated by Bracewell’s direct hit from the covers after pushing his second ball towards the off-side and calling Josh Bohannon for a dangerous single. When searching for balls far outside the off stump, Rob Jones and Tom Hartley both made excellent catches. The innings came to an absurd conclusion when Tom Bailey dodged what he thought was a beamer from Cook only to have the ball lurch into his stumps.
Lancashire’s bowlers then relished their lone good half-hour of the day while dismissed for 145 and already behind the game by a significant margin. In the second inning, Nick Browne padded up to Bailey’s third ball and was sent on his way for a pair after being caught at slip for a four-ball duck in the first innings. If the opener brings up Blackpool or even Bailey’s bowling, it’s unlikely to bring up pleasant recollections.
Alastair Cook was out for nothing in the following over after cutting Will Williams to Vilas at some point. Ten overs later, Westley was also bowled out by the same bowler. But for Lancashire, a score of 27 for 3 and a 164-run deficit was the best of the day.
They did manage to take five more wickets, but those victories served only as a backdrop to Essex’s quick accumulation, and at times it appeared as though the home team’s discipline was breaking them. The only small solace for the home crowd is that Essex did not declare 30 minutes before the end and that their starters did not have to suffer further humiliation on their team’s worst day of the year.
Lancashire only needs to bat out on the last day to secure the five points necessary for a draw. It will put them to the test more so than a run-chase would. But after the day is over and it is clear how far apart the two sides are, a somber statistic comes to mind. Essex has won seven County Championships in the last 40 years while Lancashire has only managed one.