Lancashire are the county champions.
There is a sentence that has not been written since 1934 (Lancashire shared the Championship with Surrey in 1950, but Lancashire supporters do not count that, just as Kent people are reluctant to acknowledge the shared Championship of 1977).
Congratulations to the men of the red rose. It is good when Championship pennant flies over unfamiliar pavilions. One feels particular pleasure for the players such as Glen Chapple and Gary Keedy who have played little or no international cricket, but have been proud to call themselves county cricketers, a term that has an obsolete solidity about it, like “milkman” or “haberdasher”. I think also of those Lancashire folk of my age and older who have waited all their lives for the day the Championship was won, and who will go to their graves a little happier.
Lancashire's victory is all the more relishable for having been achieved on outgrounds while Old Trafford is renovated and rotated, bringing Liverpool, Blackpool and Southport back to the first-class schedule from another age. One half expects Cardus to be filing for the Manchester Guardian. Ideally, championship cricket would never be played on the bigger Test grounds, where it rattles about like an old person in a large house with the children long-gone.
From this distance, it appears the County Championship appears in good health. There have been last-day resolutions in several recent seasons, and the introduction of promotion and relegation means that there are few meaningless games, even in September. There is less coverage in the broadsheets than a decade ago, but digital media have compensated, with plenty of good reporting on the blogs and commentary on about half the games online from the BBC.
The domestic one-day game (I mean the longer form, rather than the T20) has, relatively speaking, gone backwards.
As I write, I am watching a recording of the Somerset v Surrey one-day final at Lord's. This is the first opportunity I have had to watch one of these events since leaving the old country in 1997. Sky New Zealand has added English domestic cricket to its schedules in the last month, starting with the T20 final followed by Surrey v Durham from the last round of the league phase, the semi-finals from Taunton and the Oval, and now the final. What has brought this on, I don't know, but it is wonderful for a county cricket castaway.
Players that I had heard or read about – Maynard, Hildreth and Hamilton-Brown to name but three – have acquired a form and style. I have been struck by how many good young players Surrey and Somerset have. Jos Buttler, for example, has just reached a hallmarked fifty in adverse circumstances (speaking of youthful brilliance, I must mention Jonny Bairstow on international debut in the final ODI against India; he began as if seventy not out with ten years' experience, an innings which brought a tear to the eye of those of us who remember his late father David, who always looked as if he was enjoying himself when playing cricket, a considerable achievement when playing for Boycott's Yorkshire).
It was good to see Taunton again. Though plenty of building has taken place it appears to have retained its character, with the Quantocks on the horizon one way, the Mendips the other, and the two churches a six hit away. The southern end retains its pleasing confusion of old stands, I hope still with old leather armchairs with the stuffing coming out. It was an intimidating place to visit when Botham and Richards were in their pomp, and the locals (the Taunton Macoute) were cidered up. The end of Kent's glorious era can be dated precisely to the day in August 1979 when they were Garnered for 60 in the Gillette Cup quarter-final (it is still too soon to write more about that game).
There was not a seat to be had that day. There were plenty visible at this year's semi-final, and Lord's was little more than half full for the final. I attended twenty-five one-day finals, all of them before a capacity crowd. Why the difference? For one thing, the MCC website tells me that a ticket to the final cost between £40 and £50. More significant is that 50-over cricket has been squeezed between a surfeit of ODIs and the shaken-up bottle of Pepsi that is T20.
So, in tribute to Lancashire, let us go back forty years to a time when, the Tests done with and ODIs barely thought of, the first Saturday in September was the county game's big day: the Gillette Cup final of 1971 between Kent and Lancashire, a fine game most remembered for a single moment of athleticism from an unlikely source.
Kent were there having beaten Warwickshire soundly at Canterbury, while the BBC delayed the Nine O'Clock News to cover the climax of the other semi-final at Old Trafford, David Hughes smashing John Mortimore for 24 in one over in the dark. The famously irascible umpire Arthur Jepson replied to an appeal to go off for bad light with “You can see the moon, how far do you want to see?”.
Though Kent were the 1970 county champions, Lancashire were the dominant one-day team of the time having won the first two Sunday Leagues and the previous season's Gillette Cup.
We took our seats on the lower level of the Lord's Grandstand on a beautiful morning. Mike Denness (standing in for Colin Cowdrey who missed much of that season through illness) won the toss and put Lancashire in. Kent, against the orthodoxy of the time, usually chose to bat, but presumably Denness wanted to make the most of the September dew that was such an influence on the September final.
An early blow was the news that Norman Graham was injured and would not play. Graham, who bowled penetrating fast-medium from a great height, was very popular with the Kent faithful despite being a poor fielder and a worse batsman. But his replacement, the burly left-armer John Dye, removed Barry Wood lbw for a duck in the first over.
For much of the rest of the innings it was a good battle, each side fighting back just as the other looked to be gaining the advantage. Class told. The best innings was 66 from Clive Lloyd, and we'd have given him that at the start. Derek Underwood tied up the middle of the innings, conceding just 26 from 12 overs. John Shepherd and Asif Iqbal were almost as abstemious, but Bob Woolmer was unusually expensive, going for five an over, a fair return these days, but as profligate as a footballer's wife then.
At 179 for seven things were turning our way, but Hughes again, in partnership with his spinning colleague “Flat” Jack Simmons (who I was to sit next to on a memorable evening in a Sydney restaurant twenty-eight years later), put on an unbroken 45 in the last few overs to take Lancashire to an above-average score in the era before fielding circles, powerplays, and special rules for legside wides. In the end, it was the difference.
Kent started badly, losing England opener Brian Luckhurst for a duck. It was a struggle to 105 for five, the uncomfortable feeling that another wicket would bring the curtain down. But Asif Iqbal was in, and that changed everything. Asif was in his fourth of fifteen seasons as a Kent player, already as Kentish as hops and the Medway. The same could be said of John Shepherd. Both still live in Kent, just as Clive Lloyd and Farokh Engineer remain Mancunians to this day (it would have been at about this time that Lancashire chairman Cedric Rhoades, worried that the Indo-Pakistani War would deprive him of his wicketkeeper, asked Engineer if he might be called upon to fight, to which Engineer replied that he would have to go when the fighting reached his home village; “where's that?” asked the chairman; “Oswaldtwistle” [which is just outside Blackburn] replied the keeper).
How things have changed where overseas players are concerned. I hear that Martin van Jaarsveld is leaving for Leicestershire, an odd choice given that they are almost as short of cash at Grace Road as Kent are, and that it was only Leicestershire's ineptitude that kept Kent off the bottom of the Championship. And Marcus North has just signed for Glamorgan, his sixth (sixth!) county.
Asif was at his best that day, dancing down the pitch like Jessop and moving across the crease in a way many batsmen do now but few did then. He was also whippet-quick between the wickets – Tony Greig says the fastest of the players he has seen. Cowdrey apart, no Kent batsman of that time made his runs in a way that was so aesthetically pleasing.
For almost an hour the Lancashire bowlers were driven (and pulled and cut, but mostly driven) to distraction by him. He had reached 89, and looked odds-on for an unbeaten, victorious century when he came down the pitch once more to Simmons. Jack Bond, the dumpy 39-year-old Lancashire captain fell to his right at mid off, but our eyes passed him to follow the ball on its way to the pavilion fence. But where was it? The ball was still red then, of course, so harder to spot in the September gloaming. Asif must have timed it so sweetly that it had passed outside the spectrum of human visibility.
Bond had it. His fall had been a full-length dive to seize from the air the ball, which had never got more than a couple of feet off the ground. It was one of the famous Lord's final catches, and it won his side the game, the last three wickets falling for just three runs.
Kent were to return to Lord's for finals five more times in the seventies, winning all but one. I hope that Somerset shake off their second successive defeat at Lord's (as well as two more in the T20 elsewhere) and return as successfully, following their loss to Surrey. They still have some way to go to challenge Kent's record of successive losses in finals at headquarters though: seven (and counting).