A batsman at Aigburth floated above the rest. His extra baggy shirt hung loose, his sleeves pushed up to the elbow, his bat exclusively in one hand when not in use, like a debonair conductor eyeing up his lunch.
James Vince was patient. James Vince was careful. James Vince scored the only fifty of a crucial, low-scoring match. He smoothed Hampshire towards a 160-run lead, putting on 54 with Joe Weatherley and then 80 with Liam Dawson, which doubled his side’s lead. Thanks to Vince’s 69, Lancashire now have to get the highest score of the match to win.
There was a chance: a low, tricky, caught and bowled to Danny Lamb when Vince was on 16. There were a couple of rash flashes at wide ones, two after tea flew down into the press tent and buried themselves in a coat.
There was a flashing square drive on tiptoe. There was a silken cover drive to meet an afternoon fat full toss from Matt Parkinson which brought up his half-century. A leg glance threaded its way to the rope.
For a session and a bit everything seemed to revolve around Vince. The commentators announced that his dad had made the trip up to Liverpool. His mum emailed in to let them know that was not actually true. In the crowd a man wondered when the 30-year-old had last played for England (2018).
Would he, could he, make the Ashes tour? Just one more chance. But just as it seemed he and Dawson had put Hampshire in an overwhelmingly dominant position, and with less than four overs left, Parkinson lodged a ball into Vince’s back pad.
As Vince shook it free, Parkinson began a sustained plea that turned into a sprint of triumph. Vince was out lbw. Brad Wheal came out as a nightwatchman and, in the very next over, Dawson was bowled by Tom Bailey for 41, a magnificent ball that nipped back, to give Bailey his first five-fer of the season and swing the game back on to a more even keel.
With Nottinghamshire out of the running after failing to pick up a third batting point at Trent Bridge, the Championship is heading to either Edgbaston, Old Trafford or the Rose Bowl. If Warwickshire beat Somerset, and collect all their possible bowling points, they will win the title. If they draw, it will be one of these two teams battling it out here, where runs have been harvested under duress.
Lancashire had started the morning in the unpromising position of 25 for three, the ominous figures of Mohammad Abbas and Keith Barker waiting, ball in hand, at the River and Pavilion ends, clouds gathering. When Josh Bohannon, superbly caught at second slip, and nightwatchman Jack Blatherwick, who equalled his highest score of four, were both out with only two runs added, Hampshire’s first-innings 143 looked some distance away.
But Steven Croft, Luke Wood and Bailey found a way through, bashing even the odd loose ball from Abbas, – Wood hitting a six which left the ice-cream seller peering suspiciously out of his van – to take Lancashire to within two runs of Hampshire’s total.
Barker finished with four for 51 for his efforts, Abbas five for 48, kissing the Aigburth turf on his way back towards the beautiful old pavilion. When Bailey sliced through Hampshire’s top order, his coathanger shoulders charging into the wind, and Nick Gubbins played an immaculate forward defensive shot to George Balderson – but seconds too late, reducing them to 24 for four – it seemed Lancashire could scoop up the game in the second day. But for one man: James Vince.