As the first phase of the County Championship draws to a close, two pre-season favourites meet at Old Trafford this week as Lancashire take on Essex.
The two sides have endured contrasting fortunes so far with Lancashire hot on the tails of leaders Surrey whilst Essex find themselves marooned in mid table. Both sides will be eager for victory before the T20 Blast takes centre stage.
It is arguably only a combination of the weather and the fixture computer which means the Red Rose are not currently top of the pile. A run of three successive draws culminated with last week’s stalemate in the Roses match, a game which Lancashire would surely have won without the intervention of the rain. Frustration aplenty but they remain unbeaten and have only appeared in danger of ending up on the losing side once this season in another rain-curtailed fixture against fellow title contenders Hampshire. The bowling attack has certainly justified its hype as one of the best in the country with overseas import Hasan Ali and leg-spinner Matt Parkinson currently leading the wicket charts in Division One. Runs have come from a variety of sources with Keaton Jennings the latest to shine with a career-best 238 against Yorkshire.
Essex have had a bit of a stop-start season with three draws, a victory at Taunton by the barest of margins and a 10-wicket defeat to Warwickshire at Edgbaston. They didn’t play last week and may suffer for the lack of recent competitive action. The batting has been mixed with Sir Alastair Cook once again providing the bulk of the runs and the likes of Nick Browne and Tom Westley struggling for consistency. Paul Walter has shown promise stepping in for the injured Dan Lawrence and made his maiden first-class century in their last game against Yorkshire. Sam Cook continues to shine with the ball while Shane Snater has kicked on from his promising form last season with 15 wickets (Cook also has 15). Beyond that the attack has struggled – Australian Mark Steketee’s 10 wickets have cost almost 50 apiece while Simon Harmer is yet to hit the heights of previous years.
With the weather unlikely to play a major part Lancashire will come into the game as favourites but there is talent within this Essex side and they will be chomping at the bit to get their season back on the right track.
There will be disappointment for Josh Bohannon this week as he was overlooked for the first England test squad of the new regime but his importance to this Lancashire side remains significant. Aside from a sparkling double century against Gloucestershire Bohannon has managed just 77 runs in four innings this season, inconsistency which may have led to his omission. He will surely stay on the selectors’ radar and more big scores will keep him firmly in the frame for national honours.
There were also whispers of an international call-up for new Essex signing Matt Critchley earlier in the season but after a century against Kent in the opening round his form has plateaued somewhat. He is one of only three bowlers to dismiss former England captain Joe Root this season (James Anderson and Parkinson being the others) and should be engaged in an exciting leg-spin battle with his opposite number. Runs wouldn’t go amiss either.
Lancashire suffered a devastating blow this week with the news that Saqib Mahmood will miss the remainder of the season with a back problem. Mahmood had only managed one game in the Championship so far this season, and with Anderson and Ali in line for international call-ups the Red Rose attack could be further stretched over the coming weeks. They should at least have Ali back for this fixture after he was rested last week and he will likely replace all-rounder George Balderson or left-arm paceman Luke Wood.
Lancashire squad (probable): Dane Vilas (c), Hassan Ali, James Anderson, Tom Bailey, George Balderson, Josh Bohannon, Steven Croft, Keaton Jennings, Rob Jones, Danny Lamb, Matt Parkinson, Phil Salt (wk), Luke Wood
After missing the draws against Northamptonshire and Yorkshire with a finger injury, Essex will hope to be able to recall Dan Lawrence to their side this week. Having impressed for England in the West Indies, Lawrence managed just 98 runs in five innings before injury and has now lost his place in the national side. If he is available Feroze Khushi seems most likely to make way. Jamie Porter could also potentially return in place of the struggling Steketee who doesn’t make the squad.
Essex squad: Tom Westley (c), aaron Beard, Nick Browne, Alastair Cook, Sam Cook, Matt Critchley, Simon Harmer, Feroze Khushi, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Adam Rossington (wk), Shane Snater, Paul Walter
Date: Thursday 19th – Sunday 22nd May
Ground: Old Trafford, Manchester
Odds (SkyBet): Lancashire 8/13, Essex 6/5