Despite Northamptonshire’s Jekyll and Hyde batting performance that saw them post 404 more runs in their second innings than they had in their first and salvage a draw against Surrey, Lancashire were unable to manufacture the win they needed to have any chance of finishing the season as Division Two champions.
To have done so would have required the cooperation of home side Essex in setting up a contrived fourth innings run chase on day four of this LV= County Championship fixture at Chelmsford, but Lancashire’s sedate pace with the bat for much of the morning session suggests that any such a collaboration was never realistically on the cards.
As such, the match – in which a total of 128 overs were lost to the weather – ultimately petered out in a dull draw.
Playing in the final match of his professional career, Ashwell Prince was afforded a guard of honour by the Essex team as he walked out to the middle with his batting partner Luis Reece to resume Lancashire’s first innings at 131/2.
Were a result to be forged, Lancashire’s first task was to reach 300 and thereby take the three batting bonus points that would be essential for hopes of overhauling Surrey’s eight point lead to remain mathematically alive.
Whilst Prince was at the crease, it appeared as if the two sides might just have come to some sort of agreement. The 38-year-old South African gave a final glimpse of his talents with some crunching drives down the ground and through the covers, before working through his repertoire of cross-batted shots.
His cuts, pulls and sweeps in something resembling a homemade farewell montage. All that was missing was a Coldplay track playing over the tannoy.
Prince reached his 90th, and final, first-class half century off just 38 balls in the ninth over of the day, an innings including eight fours, five of which came off consecutive Jamie Porter deliveries. This took his 2015 first-class run tally to 1,478 and cemented his place at the top of the Championship run scoring list for the season.
Taking a moment to stop and salute the crowd, Prince left the field to a standing ovation three balls and one run after reaching his half-century having been caught sharply by Ravi Bopara at cover off the bowling of Graham Napier with the score on 203/3.
Prince and Reece shared a partnership of 81 runs in only 10.5 overs, but once they were parted the reality of the match situation became clear with Reece and new-man Steven Croft unhurriedly picking up ones and twos.
After reaching his fifty off 100 balls, Reece briefly attempted to keep up the frenetic pace, but struggling to time the ball, he soon contented himself with a bit of end-of-season time in the middle. He was out for 81 in the sixth over before lunch, caught behind by James Foster off the bowling of Jamie Porter.
Lunch having been taken with their total still 26 runs short of meriting a third batting point, Lancashire only just managed to make it to 300. Ultimately dismissed for 310, they lost their remaining six wickets in just short of 13 overs for 36 runs thanks to some loose shots that reflected the disappearance of any intensity from the game.
This afforded some cheap wickets for Bopara and Aron Nijjar who ended up with three and two apiece.
There was time before 4.20pm, the earliest permitted point at which the match could be artificially put to bed, for Essex to reach 138/3 in their second innings. James Anderson played a part in dismissing Alastair Cook cheaply for the second time in the match when he caught the England captain at third slip for six off the bowling of Glen Chapple. Anderson himself had taken the wicket of Nick Browne in the previous over as the Essex opener was squared up by an outswinger.
Coming together at 10/2, Bopara and Tom Westley then put to bed any fantasies Lancashire supporters may have had of a spectacular Essex collapse as they guided their side to 52/2 at tea.
There was just enough time after the interval for the wicket of Westley – LBW to a Tom Bailey slower ball for 34 with the score on 80 – and then some lusty blows from Bopara and Jesse Ryder to provide the Essex faithful with their final cricketing entertainment of the summer.
Bopara reached his second fifty of the match off 65 balls, including five fours and two sixes, shortly before handshakes were offered and the players left the field for the final time in 2015.
For Ashwell Prince, leading the way up the pavilion steps with just short of 18,500 first-class runs behind him, it was for the last time ever.
The match drawn, then, with Ryder unbeaten on 38 from 23 balls, Essex take twelve points and finish third on 200 points, 54 points behind Lancashire, who took eleven and return to the top flight having finished second.
Given events at the Oval, some might just argue that a more positive approach throughout the morning session might have given Lancashire the slightest of chances to skittle Essex in their second innings and chase down a total to secure victory.
In reality, on a flat deck and at the end of a long season in which the primary objective of winning promotion back to Division One was already achieved (with the added bonus of the Twenty20 cup), this was always going to be unlikely.