By Dominic Farrell
When Emirates Old Trafford underwent its handsome rebuild over recent seasons, Lancashire established Aigburth as their home-from-home.
There are many worse places to spend your time than the picturesque out-ground on the outskirts of Liverpool, overlooked by its striking Victorian pavilion. But events on the field suggest another of the Red Rose’s occasional bases would have provided a more fitting backdrop.
Starting with an improbable charge to championship glory and rounded off by this storming promotion campaign, made necessary by relegation with a whimper, Peter Moores and his charges have provided enough ups and downs over the past three campaigns to make the proprietors at Blackpool Pleasure Beach blush.
So where did it all go so right after going so wrong, after going so right? It seems a fittingly dizzying question.
Lancashire’s LV= County Championship triumph in 2011 was built around a small nucleus of 20-somethings who progressed through the Old Trafford system to deliver the prize that eluded more illustrious predecessors over the previous 77 years. Without a big-name overseas signing in sight, it was a victory for the romantics.
Such moments in sport are cherished, largely because a thumping dose of harsh reality is skulking around the corner. This was certainly the case for Lancashire’s players in 2012, relegated from Division One with a game to spare and a solitary one-wicket win over Durham to their name.
The conundrum for Moores and skipper Glen Chapple to ponder over the winter was how Lancashire’s strength had become their weakness. A tight-knit group pulled them through many a tight spot in a far from flawless title charge, but this small squad were exposed as the 2012 campaign ran away from them. Despite some players struggling badly for form, the XI picked itself.
This time round, Moores’ knack for bringing youngsters into first-class cricket at the right time for them to flourish, along with a handful of judicious acquisition, has helped to keep everyone on their toes.
Two players who have definitively grasped opportunities sent their way are Luis Reece and Andrea Agathangelou - 23-year-olds who earned their stripes in the seconds before becoming first-team fixtures.
Left-hander Reece - whose route to the starting XI has sandwiched appearances for the Unicorns and Leeds/Bradford MCCU in between stints in the club’s ranks - has jammed a flourishing blade in the revolving door that churned out opening partnerships in the first half of the season, becoming the first Lancashire batsman since Geoff Pullar in 1959 to score seven successive half-centuries.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to envisage youth being given its head to such an extent without two weathered old hands inserting a rock-solid backbone that the Lancashire order so badly lacked last season.
Ashwell Prince often fought a lone battle against his side’s woes last season. He has been similarly excellent this time and doubtlessly grateful for the presence of an ally as accomplished as Simon Katich. A tally of four centuries and six fifties at 73.13 make the veteran Australian a front-runner for the player-of-the-season gong.
For that he faces stiff competition from Lancashire’s three premier bowlers, who have all broken through the 50-wicket barrier thanks to relentless consistency.
Kyle Hogg leads the way with 59 scalps at 18.1 and an unshakeable belief in his method - hitting the seam from a height and finding movement off a nagging length. This appreciation of cricket’s simple virtues, along with a refusal to be fazed by a lean year last term, serves as a fine example to any bowler honing their trade.
Such courage in one’s convictions is something Simon Kerrigan will do well to call upon having been thrust under the England microscope. The left-arm spinner’s subtly crafted skills and useful knack of making his five-wicket hauls big ones should continue to see him through.
When negotiating the game’s inevitable sticky periods, Hogg, Kerrigan and their dressing-room colleagues need never look further than their redoubtable skipper. Still one of county cricket’s most effective new-ball operators, Chapple will be 40 next year and has pledged to tackle the top flight at least once more.
Having teamed up with Hogg to sensationally run through Essex and Northamptonshire unchanged in season-defining back-to-back victories, it is hard to dispute a decision that is wonderful news for Lancashire and another setback for batsmen across the country hoping this Red Rose hero will one day listen to the cries of his aching limbs.