If the scene was serene, the bowlers were not. Spectators unfolded in camping chairs and stretched across green benches as the Liverpool sun dipped towards its 7.13pm nightcap, but no one was leaving early. Mohammad Abbas and Keith Barker were pawing the ground, desperate to put Hampshire back in the game after they had been bowled out for 143.
Barker, trousers hitched up to reveal his patterned socks, a giant of a man, pounded in from the River End. Abbas, slight as a sycamore seed, skin covered from wrist to ankle, slid through from the Pavilion End, the smiling assassin with the effortless action. The pair of them consulted, laughing between balls. It felt like a stretch for Lancashire to survive the 20 overs to stumps. It was.
First Alex Davies, in his penultimate innings for Lancashire before he moves to Warwickshire on a three-year deal, was bowled in Abbas’s third over. Then Luke Wells was lbw for a duck to Barker, who appealed throughout with great gusto.
When George Balderson, who had bowled so neatly for Lancashire earlier in the day and done well to survive Hampshire’s opening salvo, feathered Abbas behind and was snaffled by Alsop behind the stumps, Lancashire had been reduced to 15 for three. Jack Blatherwick was sent out as nightwatchman, and he and Josh Bohannon battled through, surviving various close shaves, lots of team-building encouragement from a vocal Hampshire, and an over of spin from Liam Dawson to inch Lancashire to 25 for three and the close.
It was the final act of what had been a gripping first day in this last and crucial Championship game of the season, with only six and a half points separating the four possible winners: Hampshire, Warwickshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire. It also threw the game into the balance after Lancashire had dominated the first two sessions.
Dane Vilas had won the toss on an overcast Aigburth morning and inserted Hampshire on a pitch with a touch of spite. The visitors immediately struggled against accurate Lancashire bowling.
Ian Holland was the first to fall, for one, to a vigorous Tom Bailey, who had galloped on to the pitch with end-of-school enthusiasm. Then the 20-year-old Balderson, who made his debut in the Bob Willis Trophy only last year, found himself bowling at the potential champions. With fire in his belly, he persuaded Tom Alsop, curator of a careful 24, to give second slip a juicy catch. Nick Gubbins departed (for a duck) in the same over and Joe Weatherley soon followed.
A promising partnership started to develop between Dawson and James Vince, before another double strike when the unlucky Dawson was run out after Bailey deflected a classy straight drive on to the non-striker’s stumps. Such was Vince’s hand-on-hip disbelief that he wafted ineffectually four balls later and was caught by Davies to leave Hampshire 71 for six.
Felix Organ and Mason Crane coaxed the tail towards a total that Hampshire could bear to glance at in the mirror before Vilas summoned Matt Parkinson, who sent down 11 chirpy overs, taking three for nine. Balderson finished with three for 21 which included two dropped catches. Lancashire pocketed three bowling points and Hampshire one batting.
So a day that started with musings that the last time Lancashire won the title in a home match was at Blackpool in 1930, and that Hampshire’s last title in 1973 came when they had an opening partnership of Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, ended with eyes drifting towards Edgbaston, where Warwickshire’s batsmen were progressing without too much mishap.
Much depends on what happens in the first session and, if Lancashire can escape the clutches of Hampshire’s rampant bowlers. In the words of Mason Crane, speaking at the close: “A club ground in September is never going to be easy and we identified pretty early on that it wasn’t going to be a massive score but we scrapped and fought to the end and the way we bowled at the end was brilliant.
“We’re pretty confident that, if we get a couple of wickets in the morning, we could be looking at a lead and we’re pretty happy with the position we’re in.” The season stretches into yet another day.