Thursday, 22 September 2011

Lancashire are the County Champions

Subtitle:- Never in my lifetime  - Part 2

1934. Adolf Hitler has just become Head of State/Chancellor of Germany as the Nazi Party take a stranglehold over the country. Manchester city have won the FA Cup. Donald Duck makes his debut appearance in "The Wise Little Hen". And on the 28th August, eleven Lancashire county cricketers walk off the pitch at the Oval on a dank, dull afternoon after just winning the County Championship.

It seemed a pretty unremarkable win. It was Lancashire's fifth title in nine years, which has included a hat-trick of titles in 1926, 1927 and 1928 and the Second XI had won the Minor Counties' title in the same season. There was an air of confidence around the club and it seemed certain that Lancs had many more years of County Championship success ahead of them.

And so we move onto the 22nd of September 2007. Once again, Lancashire are playing at the Oval and it is the last day of the season. The club has had plenty of one day successes but, aside from a joint title with Surrey in 1950, the County Championship has eluded them ever since 1934. There have been plenty of times when the side finished second and could feel aggrieved that they had not won the whole thing, however this was the closest they had genuinely been for some time. Going into the game top of the table, a win was all that was necessary to end the wait for the title. Surrey didn't read the script, however, and set Lancashire 489 runs to win. They fell just 25 runs short.

Myself and a few others were there that day. Whilst it was one of the most amazing days' cricket you will ever see and an absolute privilege to have been there, it was a heartbreaking experience and one that left you wondering if we were ever going to win it again. Excuses were trotted out each year, it's the weather, we're improving, we've lost England players and so on. But in reality, we all knew that we just were not good enough. Batting points usually let us down and we had a tendency to lose or draw games that should have been wrapped up.

In 2009 Lancashire recruited Peter Moores as Head Coach. The move was greeted with cautious optimism as Moores had previously won the title at Sussex, who had never previously won the Championship. That season saw Lancashire finish fourth as they then did in 2010, albeit with slightly more points. Moving into 2011 the club was suffering from the prolonged legal battle surrounding the redevelopment of Old Trafford and, with no money to spend, the squad was made up of mainly home-grown players, with the majority of the side coming from Lancashire. The only real superstar in the side was Jimmy Anderson and his appearances were limited due to England duty. As it was, most people were hoping for a similar year to the previous two, with some quarters tipping Lancashire for the drop.

Due to the redevelopment issues at OT and the square being turned most games were to be played at Liverpool Cricket Club in Aigburth with one game at Blackpool CC and the other at Southport. The one game scheduled to take place at OT ended up being at Aigburth, although that did turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of these arrangements, the thinking was that, playing on result pitches rather than a flat Old Trafford, this could be the best chance we'd have of winning the Championship.

Halfway through the season and the only defeats had come in both games against Durham who, on paper, looked to be the best side in the country. But Lancs kept winning and, even when they slipped and drew, or even after the loss to Notts at Southport, Durham slipped up as well meaning Lancs were top of the table with three games left. Defeat to Worcestershire away, however, after being bowled out for 80 in the second innings, meant people were ruefully looking back to earlier results. Not finishing off Sussex at Hove. Not beating Warwickshire at home. The loss to Notts. Just missing out on a bonus point here and a bonus point there. It looked like yet another "if only" season.

As the penultimate game of the season at home to Hampshire drew to a close it looked like Warwickshire had been handed the title on the plate. Injuries and other setbacks had pushed Durham near enough out of the race, with Hugh and his Bears making a last gasp charge for the line. As the last day at Aigburth rolled on and Hampshire stubbornly held onto their last remaining wicket, it looked like it was near enough over. Until, with eight balls to go, Simon Kerrigan took his ninth wicket of the match and sent everyone associated with the club into rapture. The dream was still on and we went down to Taunton just three points behind Warwickshire.

It was more hope than anything else. Lancs were playing well, but Warwickshire had put on a huge total. Hampshire batted admirably, but missed out on avoiding the follow-on. At the end of the third day Hampshire were 3 down for not a lot, already relegated and looking doomed. It seemed the only celebration to be had was that of Yorkshire's relegation and the ensuing rant from their Chairman! Once again it was a case of what might have been as everyone attempted to keep their spirits high. It had been a good and eventful trip regardless and it was a season that we could look back on with pride.

On the fourth day we'd been invited up into an executive box by a couple of Somerset fans. A great view of our game and, more importantly for the day itself, the Hampshire v Warwickshire game on the telly. It looked like Lancy would roll Somerset over quite early and we'd be watching events in Southampton for the rest of the day.

It seemed, however, that neither Hampshire nor Somerset had read the script. Whilst Lancashire toiled in the field at Taunton, Hampshire batted resiliently throughout the day. At the end of the first session they were still only three wickets down and looking comfortable. Eventually, wickets did fall, but at 5 o'clock, with 11 overs remaining and with Hampshire leading by 158, Warwickshire gave up and shook hands on the draw. So the destination of the title rested purely on Lancashire's result.

After toiling for quite a while, Somerset were eventually eight wickets down after a frustrating partnership, but that was followed by Trego and Kartik piling on even more runs. Eventually Trego was dismissed before a Keedy run out sparked a huge outpouring of emotion as Lancs prepared to chase down 212 to win the game.

I missed the run out as I'd gone into hiding by this point. A combination of the last three days of excess and the tension/emotion surrounding the day had meant I'd cracked. As Keedy hit the stumps I was looking around the Somerset cricket museum in an attempt to calm my nerves. Eventually I decided I'd better be there watching what was happening and headed off to the box again.

The runs ticked down slowly... In typical Lancs style, despite a great opening partnership, a couple of wickets fell just to leave you with that twitchy feeling. Until Steven Croft hit the winning runs around 15 minutes after Warwickshire had shook hands with Hampshire. What followed was an outpouring of relief, joy and all sorts of other emotions as the monkey was finally lifted from our backs. Lancashire were the County Champions.

I lost myself. One minute I'm jumping around screaming "we've won it, we've won it, we've fucking won it!" and the next I'm doing some strange crying/laughing hybrid, tears streaming down my face. It was a brilliant moment with no words capable of doing it justice. It was, quite frankly, the best day of my life. The celebrations spilled onto the outfield. People met up with friends that had been dotted around the ground, the joy shared amongst young and old. There were people there who have followed Lancashire home, away and even overseas for a number of years. The weight lifted from all us, something that was plainly visible as you looked around the ground.

The trophy was lifted. Karl Brown had a good go at breaking the base. We ended up on the wicket where it had all happened. I even got my hands on the bloody trophy! The rest of the night is a touch blurry, as you could imagine. Players were spotted around town and some even ended up in a nightclub with them. The next morning I shook hands with Kyle Hogg and Glen Chapple - you could see exactly what it meant to him, too. This was our United in 1993 moment and Glen Chapple was our Bryan Robson.

It was a wonderful experience that topped off a fantastic trip. Can we now go on and win it more often? That remains to be seen, there is still room for improvement, but we do have a young side hungry for success. Something tells me there'll be no complacency with them.

Once again - Lancashire CCC are the County Champions.

Some photographs from the day.

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