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Title Agony Continues (2004-2008)

It was a case of so nearly for Lancashire between 2004 and 2008, with a heart breaking Championship finale at the Oval in 2007 the closest the side had come to ending their 73-year title drought.

The 2004 campaign, Warren Hegg’s last season as captain, was a disappointing affair, marked by relegation from Division One of the County Championship, finishing next to bottom with only two wins, one of which, in April, was a crushing three days success over title-holders Sussex.

Little went right after that. Injuries took their toll – Peter Martin played in only six championship games – and key batsmen Stuart Law, Carl Hooper and Mal Loye were all in the treatment room for lengthy periods. The bowling department also came under pressure. Martin struggled with knee trouble and was to announce his retirement at the end of the season, James Anderson was on England duty, and Sajid Mahmood failed to hit form after a punishing ODI debut for England. Left-arm spinner Gary Keedy, however, rose to the challenge with a career best 72 wickets.

Lancashire again came close to one-day honours, particularly in a nail-biting one run defeat by Surrey in the Twenty20 Cup semi – their third semi heartbreak under Hegg’s captaincy. They took second spot in the Totesport one-day League and were beaten by Yorkshire in the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy quarter-final, thanks to a magnificent century by Michael Vaughan.

Martin said farewell after 16 seasons. He had 584 first-class wickets for Lancashire, and 17 in eight Tests for England. At one-day level he had been a member of the highly successful Red Rose side of the 1990′s, and claimed 27 victims in 20 England appearances. It was also to be the last season with Lancashire for Hooper, Jamie Haynes, Chris Schofield, Alec Swann, John Wood and Mark Currie.

While the Ashes took centre stage in 2005, there was plenty for Lancashire fans to enthuse about as, under the new captain, Mark Chilton, they stormed back into the top flight as Division Two champions. Again it was a case of so near yet so far in one-day cricket, but at least Lancashire were back on track in the Championship.

A string of overseas stars made an impact. Andrew Symonds, on tour with Australia but not required for the Ashes, made a spectacular debut in the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy quarter-final against Sussex and topped the first-class batting averages with 62.

Muttiah Muralitharan claimed 36 wickets in six games, and another ‘Murali’ spin demon – India’s Murali Kartik popped up virtually unannounced to take 16 wickets in the last two matches, sealing the second division title. But there were home grown successes as well, James Anderson leading the way with 60 Championship wickets to prove he had overcome a serious back injury.

Hopes of a one day trophy were wrecked by Somerset’s South African star Graeme Smith in the Twenty20 Cup final at the Oval, and by a lack-lustre performance at Edgbaston in the C&G Trophy semi-final. Injury robbed Hegg of a well deserved farewell appearance at Old Trafford and the chance of beating George Duckworth’s wicket keeping record of 925 dismissals. Hegg finished with 920 after 20 seasons and 337 first-class appearances for the club.

The everlasting memory of 2005, however, was the last day of the Old Trafford Test when, with the ground bursting at the seams, Lancashire had to lock the gates on an estimated 20,000 fans still outside. This, after the shock news, that Old Trafford had not been awarded an Ashes Test for 2009. The overall attendance was 108,993, the 2nd highest in Old Trafford’s history.

Lancashire’s chairman Jack Simmons joked about re-locating to the south coast after rain thwarted a great bid to land the 2006 title. Chilton’s team were well set but the weather played havoc with the last four games, three of them on home soil, and Sussex took advantage.

Mal Loye hammered 1,198 Championship runs, including three consecutive centuries for the second time in his Lancashire career, and new wicketkeeper Luke Sutton’s 151 against Yorkshire was a Red Rose record for a ‘keeper beating Farokh Engineer’s 141. But the loss of the prolific Australian Brad Hodge after only five matches was a setback. New Zealand’s experienced Nathan Astle came in, but never hit top form.

Pipped for the Championship by the sunshine boys of Hove, Lancashire also had to play second fiddle to them in the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy final at Lord’s. In a low scoring but dramatic clash, Stuart Law’s controversial lbw was a major blow. The umpire later apologized. But Lancashire still had chances to win and failed despite a superb innings from Dominic Cork.

Disappointment came again the following season, but there was glory in failure when Lancashire went down by 24 runs in the last match at the Brit Oval, after being set an ‘impossible’ target of 489. In a heart-rending climax, with the Championship at stake, they reached 464 before Cork was the last man out. Surrey’s victory enabled Sussex to land the title. Lancashire could only finish third with Durham in the runners-up position.

It was a thrilling end to the campaign and captain Mark Chilton emerged from the Oval dressing-room to say: “To get even close to that target was phenomenal. It was agony, but I’m proud of this side.” Chilton later resigned the captaincy, and Stuart Law was named as his successor for 2008.

Perhaps the bare facts do not accurately reflect Lancashire’s progress under Chilton. Lancashire did not win a major trophy, and his batting suffered under the weight of the responsibility. But he could well be considered unlucky. The team often looked capable of putting silverware in the Old Trafford cabinet, but under performed when it most mattered, highlighted by that remarkable Oval match, where their heroics in the second innings masked their failure in the first.

While Muttiah Muralitharan (51 wickets in eight matches) and India’s VVS Laxman were among those who impressed, the Player of the Year award went to the emerging young batsman Paul Horton who scored 1,116 runs at the top of the order.

Lancashire matched their Championship record of 5 wins and 2 defeats the following season, but only after flirting with relegation. Going in to the last two matches, wins against Kent (who subsequently went down) and Somerset demonstrated the resilience in the side, and resulted in a mid-table finish.

Their one-day form in 2008 was decidely mixed. Relegation came in the NatWest Pro40 League, while the team finished fourth in their Friends Provident Trophy group – albeit just two points behind leaders Durham. In the Twenty20 Cup Lancashire qualified as group runners-up (behind Durham), but lost by 12 runs to Middlesex in a high-scoring quarter-final match switched to the Oval.

Steven Croft was Player of the Year, with Tom Smith named Young Player of the Year, and there were plenty of signs that Lancashire’s youngsters were making progress. Paul Horton was one of the leading performers, while South African Francois (Faf) du Plessis caught the eye and was outstanding in the field.

The overseas player spot once again had a bit of a revolving door feel about it, with Brad Hodge leaving in May to go to the IPL and his spot being occupied by Mohammad Yousuf and then from mid-season by Lou Vincent.

Captain Stuart Law led from the front in his customary style, but injuries to Mal Loye, Dominic Cork and leading wicket-taker Glen Chapple didn’t help maintain any consistency.

The end of the season saw the departure of Law, after 7 outstanding seasons at the club during which he scored nearly 12,000 runs in all competitions. Cork left to join Hampshire while Iain Sutcliffe retired and Simon Marshall was released.

It was the end of an era too for Peter Marron, with Lancashire’s popular Head Groundsman moving on after an association with the Club that strectched back to the late 1970′s.

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