Cast your minds back to early April: the new County Championship season was almost upon us, media days were in full swing and, naturally, predictions are made about the campaign ahead.
The usual suspects were tipped for the top. ‘Yorkshire are always strong, Middlesex have a chance of retaining their title and just look at that squad Surrey have got’ were the most common suggestions.
Most regular observers of the county game picked out two teams for relegation: Lancashire and Essex.
Lancashire won three of their first five games last season and then didn’t win another for the rest of the campaign – a run that left them alarmingly close to an immediate return to Division Two. It was a slide that did little to instil confidence for the 2017 Championship.
Essex were promoted from Division Two last season, and most doubted their ability to make the not-inconsiderable jump in quality to compete at the higher level.
Show me a person who claims to have tipped Lancashire and Essex to be the two battling it out for the title, with just four rounds to go, and I will show you a liar.
And yet here we are in the first week of September with Essex rolling into Old Trafford with a 36-point lead over the Red Rose – who are the only side realistically capable of preventing the team from Chelmsford completing a remarkable title win.
So how has it come to this?
Firstly, it would be remiss not to say that a number of the more fancied sides have had pretty poor seasons. Yorkshire and Middlesex, in particular, have put in a string of underwhelming performances that have left them both facing the almost inconceivable prospect of a relegation scrap.
But it would also be wrong to downplay just how impressive Lancashire and Essex have been in overturning the odds to be in this position.
Both were helped in the opening weeks of the season by the prolonged availability of their England stars, James Anderson and Alastair Cook – the pair may yet also feature in the final three rounds of the season after the Test series against the Windies concludes.
But it’s been the less-recognisable names that have really stood out. Few, for instance, would even have heard of Simon Harmer and Jamie Porter at the start of the season.
And yet those two Essex bowlers are, by a distance, the leading wicket-takers in Division One with 53 and 52 wickets respectively.
Porter’s 12 wickets in the match to help his side to a crucial victory against Somerset last week underlined just how mighty the Essex bowlers have been in their title tilt.
Couple that with the early season runs of England pair Cook and Tom Westley and the consistent form of batsman Nick Browne, the fifth highest runs-scorer in Division One, it becomes clear to see why Essex have been so strong throughout the season.
Essex have won seven of their ten matches. They are yet to lose. There’s simply no arguing with that. It’s been a remarkable effort from a side and a squad who has exceeded expectations and stand on the brink of a truly spectacular title win.
Lancashire’s success has come from finding an outstanding team spirit and a blend of youth and experience.
It was a turbulent winter at Old Trafford. Head Coach Ashley Giles departed for Warwickshire, long-serving all-rounder Tom Smith was forced to retire through injury and last seasons top runs-scorer Alviro Petersen left the club after being banned for covering up match-fixing in his native South Africa.
As preparation for a new season goes, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing.
And yet, in new coach Glen Chapple Lancashire had a man who knew the club inside out having spent his entire professional career at Old Trafford. It was clear from the very first interviews that he was ready for the job and ready to instil a grit in Lancashire that would serve them well.
That fighting spirit has, in many ways, underlined their season. Often they have found themselves in difficult positions, losing early wickets only to battle back.
Take for example their clash with Surrey at The Oval. Lancashire found themselves 67-5 and 122-6 before a 243-run partnership between Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Jordan Clark got them into a position where they even enforced the follow-on.
That was the second game of the season and it showcased the spirit that has carried Lancashire through this campaign.
Add to that the quality of their signings and the development of youth. Many scoffed at bringing 42-year-old Chanderpaul (now 43) back to the club. 702 runs at an average of 70.20 later and not too many are scoffing now.
Another experienced head Ryan McLaren arrived and has been arguably the signing of the season for any county. Especially with the ball, where he has taken 34 wickets, the South African has been exceptional.
But Lancashire have a raft of young players, too. Last season it was Haseeb Hameed who shone brightest, and Lancashire didn’t expect to see much of him due to England commitments. But Hameed has had a dismal season.
It has instead been Alex Davies, with three centuries and an average of 47.56 who has starred with the bat. Liam Livingstone’s 224 last week showcased his talent, while 20-year-old leg-spinner Matt Parkinson has made a big impression. Lancashire have shown the value of home grown talent.
And so to this weeks match at Old Trafford. For Lancashire it’s must-win. Anything other than a victory for the Red Rose will leave a gap that is surely to great to make up in the final three matches. For the competition itself, a Lancashire win is needed. Nobody wants to see the Championship decided with rounds still to play.
They are the form horses, the two sides who have consistently played the best cricket from the first call of ‘play’ right back in April. And it’s come down to this.
It ought to be a special clash. All season long it’s been a case of these two counties defying the odds. Now they are out in front, they stand alone as the two protagonists slugging it out for Championship glory.
Lancashire Squad: Steven Croft (C), Tom Bailey, Jos Buttler, Shiv Chanderpaul, Jordan Clark, Alex Davies, Haseeb Hameed, Kyle Jarvis, Liam Livingstone, Ryan McLaren, Matthew Parkinson, Stephen Parry, Dane Vilas
Essex Squad: Varun Chopra (C), Mohammad Amir, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Sam Cook, Matt Dixon, James Foster (wk), Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Callum Taylor, Paul Walter, Adam Wheater, Ashar Zaidi
Weather and Conditions
Rain could yet reduce all the excitement of this match to a case of watching the covers. Most of the four days are to be hit by rain, with Tuesday and Friday looking especially wet. Old Trafford is a tough pitch to read and often a good toss to lose.
Date: 5th – 8th September 2017
Ground: Emirates Old Trafford
Odds: Lancashire 11/10, Essex 8/11