If Simon Harmer’s hunch is correct, and Lancashire prepare a spinner’s wicket for Tuesday’s top-of-the-table showdown at Old Trafford, then he could be in for a busy four days.
Matthew Merchant, Lancashire’s groundsman, has a major dilemma when it comes to preparing the pitch for a game that could ultimately decide the destiny of this season’s Specsavers County Championship. After all, in Harmer and seamer Jamie Porter, Essex have the top two wicket-takers in Division One and can cover all bases with their bowling attack, no matter what surface is served up.
South African off-spinner Harmer said: “We’re confident enough that whatever pitch they prepare we’ll be able to put out the right side. We’ve got a well-balanced squad and we’ve shown throughout the season that we can play in any conditions.
“I think they’ll look for the wicket to turn. They’ve got an experienced spinner in Stephen Parry and a new exciting prospect in [Matt] Parkinson, so I wouldn’t think they’d go with anything much different than a turning wicket and play three seamers and two spinners.”
All of which sounds like the sort of scenario that would play into Harmer’s hands. “Hopefully, hopefully,” he says. “If the weather plays its part hopefully I can have an impact on the game. It would be a massive win for us if we pull it off, though to be honest the forecast isn’t looking too optimistic at the moment. It looks pretty wet up there Tuesday and Wednesday.”
If the Old Trafford groundstaff opt for something to please the seamers, then Porter will be rubbing his hands after reaching 52 wickets, one less than Harmer, with his 12-wicket haul against Somerset at Chelmsford last week. The pair bowled in tandem to share the 10 second-innings wickets, split seven-three, as Essex upset second-place Lancashire’s hopes of cutting the deficit to manageable proportions; it currently stands at 36 points with four games to play.
We’re confident enough that whatever pitch they prepare we’ll be able to put out the right side
With Lancashire recording a victory over Warwickshire an hour or so earlier, Harmer says: “They were pretty optimistic that they had managed to close the gap by 20-odd points, so it would have been frustrating to see us turn Somerset over the way we did, bowling them out in a session and a half.
“They were pretty certain that we wouldn’t be able to do it, but it just shows the sort of space the team is in, the tough cricket we’ve been playing.
“It was a special spell from Jamie to crack things open at the beginning and it opened the door for us. I’m sure there will be a lot of competitiveness between us to see who takes the most wickets this season, but as long as ultimately the team benefits, that has to come first.”
Forty-one of Harmer’s 53 wickets have come at Chelmsford, 17 of them lbw, many to batsmen playing no shot to deliveries pitching outside off-stump. “One of my friends joked with me asking if some of the batsmen were going for the Golden Boot award, judging by the amount of balls they’ve kicked away.
“There haven’t been a helluva lot of shots [played] in the lbw decisions. Speaking to one of the umpires, he said you tend to lose the benefit of the doubt when you don’t offer a shot, so I’m always going to ask the question if the ball hits the pads.”
So how should batsmen play him? “Probably play across and be the boss. Just look to be attacking. In a lot of the games where we’ve needed six or seven wickets to win, batters come in and look to be very defensive and bat for the day. That plays into any spinner’s hands.
“If you’re only looking to survive you’re always going to create chances. But runs on the board dictate a lot how a spinner bowls. When you’re in an attacking position in the game it makes it a lot easier. It’s testament to the way our batting unit has played this season that I’ve been able to bowl as attacking as I have.”
Back to Old Trafford, Harmer says: “Make no bones about it, it’s a big game for both sides. If we can beat them we really are sitting pretty, so I don’t think there will be anyone being complacent. We haven’t lost all season and I’m pretty sure the boys are keen to go through the season unbeaten.”
Meanwhile, Glen Chapple says the task of overhauling title favourites Essex is an exciting one for his Lancashire players.
The Red Rose coach does not hide from the fact the hosts are outsiders in the race for the Specsavers County Championship crown, being 36 points behind with four to play. But he insists they will be giving it a good go, especially coming off the back of a comprehensive win over Warwickshire last time out.
“Essex are in the driving seat at the moment,” said the former all-rounder. “It’s theirs to lose. We’ve got it all to do, but it gives us something to fight for, and it’s exciting.
“Their win at Scarborough whilst we were getting washed out at Hampshire (early August) gave them some breathing space.”