After the euphoria of 2011, the comedown of 2012 could hardly be more pronounced. From Champions to relegated and with the added pain of Yorkshire going up, meaning no Roses cricket next year as well.
Listening to Lancashire all season, it felt almost like they never could quite ‘click’. They always seemed to be playing a little bit worse than they ought to be and when they improved it was short-lived. Fate did not help at all. Last season Lancashire only lost 200-odd overs to the weather. This year it was about nine times that much; over five full matches worth of time lost. In practice it completely ruined eight matches: against Somerset (twice), Notts, Sussex, Surrey (twice), Worcs and Durham. Not all looked like being Lancashire wins, of course (though the two against Somerset did), and when it didn’t rain Lancashire still lost more often than not. The result can certainly not be blamed on the weather, but it really did not help. The other bits of misfortune were injuries and the schedule. Tom Smith missed most of the season with a hamstring injury and showed at the end of the year just how much that hurt the team. Lancashire finally started hitting their stride and either won or came close to winning their three matches before the T20 break. But that month of pyjama cricket broke their momentum and form.
Still, it would be inaccurate and rather irresponsible to blame fate for Lancashire’s relegation. There were flaws with both the bowling and batting. The batting has looked quite poor as there were a number of dramatic collapses that seemed to all but put Lancashire out of matches. But whilst it is true that the batting was not great, it was probably not as bad as it first appears. The first thing to remember is that the conditions favoured bowlers all year. No team batted as well as one would otherwise expect and Lancashire’s total of 25 batting points was comfortably more than Durham and only one fewer than Nottinghamshire. The biggest problem for Lancashire seemed to be that there was a much greater reliance on one person this year: Ashwell Prince. Prince scored 1,008 run at an average of over 40 in 15 matches. But he had no support; the next highest tally was Steven Croft’s 666 runs at under thirty. The practical upshot was that sometimes the batting would fire and put Lancs in a good position and sometimes there would be an astonishing collapse.
Those collapses are quite memorable, of course, but the bowling was the much larger problem. The summer was so wet that the conditions very much favoured bowlers, but Lancs had a terrible time taking twenty wickets. In sixteen matches they took only twenty wickets only three times. It was very much the bowling that won the title last year, with three bowlers taking over fifty wickets in 2011 and Simon Kerrigan of course taking 24 in just four matches. Whilst it would be a lot to ask for a repeat performance, few of the bowlers even came close. The apparently ageless Glen Chapple took 42 over the course of the year (with a pair of five-fers, ten in one match and a bowling average of 24 over the course of the year) and Kerrigan still managed 44 on what tended to be fairly unhelpful pitches. But he did so with an average over 33 and the next highest wicket total was that of Luke Procter of all people with 25. This is not to say the bowling was uniformly terrible, but they did a terrible job of making the most of good starts. In the first match of the season, Sussex recovered from 13-3 to 300 all out thanks to a fourth wicket stand of 164 and unfortunately it was that which really set the tone for the season. Every match that was not badly rain affected had at least one century partnership for Lancashire’s opposition and usually they occurred after early collapses. Of particular import were Warwickshire’s stand of 224 after being 81-7, Worcestershire’s partnership of 127 after being 93-6 and of course Middlesex’s recovery to 446 after losing three wickets early. The first two probably cost Lancashire the match, and by extension their place in the first division, whilst the third all but broke the back of the season.
There will be some calls for change over the winter, I suspect, but I think restraint is important. There are changes we can make, but I think we only need a few. First is that we will need a replacement for Ashwell Prince, unless we can convince him to return. Whilst we have to back our batsmen to improve next year (we know they can play better than they did this year), they will be very much helped by having someone very good and reliable like Prince again. There aren’t a huge number of options due to the IPL and international commitments, of course, but there are a few who are in similar situations as Prince was and who we might be able to sign. But as I said above the bowling was the bigger problem. Ajmal Shahzad looked a decent addition (especially with Sajid Mahmood having a shocker of a season), but he did not actually come up with a lot of wickets. Kyle Hogg also had a poor season, Tom Smith was injured for much of the year and we seldom had chances to play both Keedy and Kerrigan. It’s probably fair to expect Hogg to have a better season next year. Shahzad and Mahmood are a lot more uncertain, but both are talented. I don’t think there is actually a lot we can do to improve the bowling from a personnel standpoint. There are no English players (and I’m assuming we use our overseas player for a batsman) who spring to mind who are all of available, affordable and a clear improvement to what we have. It’s not ideal, but I suspect we will have to make do with what we have. (And maybe hope we get Jimmy for more than just one match this time.) Really, it should be enough, though, especially in Division Two. I think in most cases one would expect it to have been enough in Division One.
I’m optimistic about Lancashire’s chances next season. Unless something goes very wrong in the winter (eg: Chappie retiring) we will probably be favourites to go straight back up. There are improvements to be made, but I think that sticking with the core of this squad will pay dividends.