The 2017 season marked a respectable return for a prospering Lancashire side. A disappointing white-ball campaign, in which the red rose county failed to reach the knock-out stages of either competition, took the gloss of an excellent second place finish in the Championship.
Although a title challenge was never realistically on the cards, finishing runners-up was mightily impressive given that many had predicted Lancashire to be relegated from Division One.
Now, after impressive winter recruitment, can this ever-maturing side mount a serious title challenge during the upcoming campaign?
Lancashire’s red-ball success has been non-existent since their 77-year wait for an outright title was ended back in 2011. Two relegations from Division One in 2012 and 2014 meant that survival was the main priority when they returned to the top-tier in 2016.
But after spending two seasons reconsolidating a Division One status, many of the Lancashire faithful will be expecting some silverware come the end of the 2018 season.
Reason to Dream:
Lancashire’s faithful could be forgiven for dreaming of a title success so early in the year, given how their side will line-up in April. Keaton Jennings is a hugely impressive signing and the 25-year-old will bolster the top order. However, the Lancashire head coach Glen Chapple now has a selection headache regarding his opening partnership.
Jennings opening alongside Haseeb Hameed seems like a natural fit, and one that some tipped to be a future England Test opening partnership even before Jennings signed. However, it would be a blow to Alex Davies, who was Lancashire’s top scorer in the Championship last season (916 runs @ 39.83) and often got his side off to a positive start; especially during Hameed’s barren run of form at the beginning of the campaign.
Davies has spoken of his love of opening the batting despite keeping wicket as well, but would surely drop to three if need be.
Haseeb Hameed could just as easily fit in at three, as could Jennings; the latter having the advantage of being the only left-hander of the trio. Success at three could be a way back into the England Test team for the 21-year-old, given their continued struggle to fill the position.
Liam Livingstone at four is arguably the most exciting young batsman in the country and has been made the club captain for the upcoming campaign, taking over the reigns from Steven Croft. Livingstone impressed when captaining in Croft’s absence last season, and is viewed as a natural leader by the Lancashire coaches.
Complications could be made by the 24-year-old’s call-up to England’s Test team for the tour of New Zealand, though. The Red Rose County would be without their captain and primary batsman, should he become a regular for England, although the ECB’s declaration to consider Ben Stokes for selection again could rob Livingstone of a place in the Test side.
The decision to award Livingstone the captaincy is a brave one. Somerset made a similarly brave decision ahead of the 2017 campaign by awarding 22-year-old (now 23) Tom Abell the captaincy. Despite finishing as runner-up in 2016, Somerset failed to replicate that form last year and narrowly avoided relegation. Abell himself suffered with the bat (572 runs @ 26) and was even dropped from the side for a short period.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Steven Croft, and Dane Vilas will provide depth and experience to the Lancashire batting line-up; and the staggered availability of Jos Buttler will no doubt add some firepower.
Reason for Concern:
Despite all the talk of batting line-ups, titles are won by bowlers and Lancashire’s main concern will be taking 20 wickets on a consistent basis. The departures of Kyle Jarvis and Ryan McLaren – the former returning to play for Zimbabwe and the latter opting not to return for family reasons – has hampered the bowling ranks.
The pair took 88 Championship wickets between them last season and formed a formidable opening partnership at times. Glen Chapple has reacted by bringing in another Durham player, Graham Onions. Onions has been a consistent wicket-taker in red-ball cricket, but one must question his longevity at the age of 35 and the fact that the ex-England bowler chose to sign for Lancashire because of the promise of a coaching role in the future.
Chapple has already stated that Onions is unlikely to feature in every Championship fixture, and that he hopes young seamers Tom Bailey and Saqib Mahmood will feature more prominently.
Chapple completed his winter recruitment by signing Joe Mennie as an overseas player. The Australian seamer was not the big name many were hoping for, but the 29-year-old should be a solid addition to the bowling ranks. Mennie has represented his country in one Test and two ODIs; and has taken an impressive 261 FC wickets at an average of 26.17.
The real concern for Lancashire is the lack of a world-class spinner. Of course, such bowlers are hard to come by yet it is curious that the Red Rose County have never really opted for a spinner as their overseas since Muttiah Muralitharan. Stephen Parry and Simon Kerrigan have done a solid job between them over the past few seasons, but neither one can be considered a match winner.
Gary Keedy’s tally of 61 wickets during the title winning season of 2011 has not been bettered since, nor has any Lancs spinner passed 50 wickets while in Division One. Simon Harmer could be seen as the biggest factor to Essex’s title win last year (72 wickets @ 19.19) and, while Stephen Parry bowled very economically, he only took 25 wickets @ 31.08.
There is perhaps potential in that regard however with the emergence of leg-spinner Matt Parkinson last season. The now 21-year-old impressed especially in the T20 Blast but also featured towards the back end of the 2017 Championship campaign, including taking seven wickets in the match at the spin-friendly Taunton. He has spent the winter in Australia on an ECB Overseas Placement, at the same club where Hampshire and England’s Mason Crane excelled last year and could be Lancashire’s lead spinner this season.
Away form is another concern. All of Lancashire’s eight wins of the last two campaigns have come at Old Trafford or an out ground. Their last away win in Division One was way back in April 2014 against Northants. A strong home record is important but no team has ever won the title without winning away from home.
It is impossible to predict how the season will pan out at this early stage, or any stage for that matter. This time last year, nobody would have predicted Essex to win the title so emphatically.
Lancashire have a lot of work ahead of them, but there is reason to believe.