If you’re one of the 99.9 per cent of cricket-loving Englishmen who will never play for your country, then it probably can’t get much better than being the bloke who slapped the runs that won your home county – the hottest of cricketing hotbeds – its first County Championship outright in 77 years. Such was the buzz bestowed upon Steven Croft in 2011.
“It was surreal,” he tells AOC. “Going into that last day we thought we’d win our game, but we didn’t think we were going to win the Championship. Then we started getting messages from the crowd that Warwickshire were going to draw. Me and Karl Brown were just saying, ‘Let’s get these as quick as possible and get in the dressing room to celebrate with the lads’. Nothing technical or game-wise was discussed.”
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For the homegrown Lancashire squad, Hampshire’s resilience against Warwickshire – batting all day after following on – exemplified life’s Sliding Doors, and had Croft’s father, an engineer, not landed a job in Sri Lanka then the football-loving seven-year-old may never have taken up the game. However, three years in the tropics saw Croft’s cricketing fires kindled, a passion that was brought home to Blackpool CC, the club that nurtured his passage into the Lancashire system, and with which he’s still involved. Indeed, late in that 2011 campaign Croft scored 107 and 50 against Worcestershire at Blackpool, as well as taking the winning catch on a ground where he’d once been a wide-eyed dressing-room runner for the star-studded team of the late Nineties.
Croft broke into the Lancashire second XI aged 16, eclipsing Fred Flintoff’s record as the county’s youngest-ever debutant. His skipper was Warren Hegg, one of the autographs he collected as a runner. “I was surprised he even knew my name. He had a lot on his plate as captain, keeper and middle-order bat, but he found time to get me involved. I owe him a lot.”
Croft’s usefulness as a fourth seamer helped get him in the first team, but it was a maiden Championship hundred against Notts en route to being chosen as the county’s Player of the Year in 2008 that provided the psychological breakthrough, convincing him he could do it as a batter. Two years later, aged 25, he was capped.
Part of Croft’s all-round contribution is his superlative fielding, generally at point or in the slips but it was a phenomenal one-handed effort at deep midwicket, in front of the Old Trafford pavilion, to dismiss Michael Vaughan in a Roses T20 that remains his best-ever grab.
Despite the cross-Pennine rivalry, Croft has looked on admiringly at recent White Rose successes – “there is a rivalry, but we get on well off the field” – although Lancashire have nothing to feel inferior about in T20 cricket, following the foiled Flintoff fairytale in 2014 with a memorable demolition of Northants in last season’s final. “It was a huge moment for me to lift the trophy,” he says.
Never having appeared in a Lord’s one-day final remains a gap on Croft’s CV and having won T20 and Championship medals, he would dearly love to complete the set. But next year the aim is to end the pattern of Champo yo-yoing having secured promotion back to the top tier.
As Lancastrian as rain, smog and hotpot, Croft – who was named full-time Lancs captain in November having deputised for the injured Tom Smith last season – says he’ll have no problem making sure his troops feel the same connection to the shirt as he does. “We’re a massive club with a massive following and big expectations come with that. Yes, it’s a thriving business, and basically our job is to score runs, take wickets and catch catches. But in the last few years the lads have got their heads round what it means to wear that red rose.”