HAD someone said before the start of the season that one of the Roses counties would lead the Championship table seven weeks in, one might have assumed that the county was Yorkshire.
Instead, it is Lancashire who sit proudly on top of the pile, defying predictions of a difficult summer after promotion last season from Division Two.
In many ways, the success of the Red Rose club backs up Martyn Moxon’s belief that any team could win the Championship this year.
The Yorkshire director of cricket believes that the title race is more wide open than ever, and Lancashire have won three of their first five games to sit 19 points ahead of fourth-placed Yorkshire, who have prevailed in one of their opening five fixtures.
It is still early days, however, and if a positive can be drawn from Yorkshire’s steady if unspectacular start as they pursue a hat-trick of Championships, it is that they remain firmly in the mix without having performed to anything like their optimum.
There have been flashes of excellence from the champions, who have played well at various stages of games if not quite with the same consistency throughout matches that has been a hallmark in recent years.
At the same time, they have been hit by indifferent weather and a spate of injuries to key players, with the treatment table at Headingley having been unusually congested of late.
Ryan Sidebottom – still the leader of the attack at the grand old age of 38 – has chipped a bone in his left ankle that is likely to keep him out for a little while yet, while David Willey has had an abdominal injury that rules him out of this week’s fixture.
Tim Bresnan is set to make his first Championship appearance of the season after a calf problem, while teenage pace bowler Matthew Fisher has been unable to take part due to a hamstring injury from which he is now recovering in earnest.
There has been mitigation, therefore, for a Yorkshire club routinely hit by England calls as well, but there is also an acknowledgement within the camp that they are still capable of more than they have so far shown.
Certainly one will hear no excuses from Moxon as Yorkshire prepare for a mouth-watering Roses encounter in which they are determined not to cede further ground to their rivals from across the Pennines.
“There are no excuses from us because we still expect our squad to cope with injuries,” he said.
“We want our players to be good enough to cope with anything we have to deal with, and the facts are that we just haven’t quite been at our best yet.
“But the players are working extremely hard to try to make sure that changes, and there’s no doubting the character of the squad and the team. There’s a lot more to come from us, and, hopefully, we’ll soon be back to our best.”
Moxon has not been surprised by Lancashire’s start, with the visitors arriving at Headingley on the back of a thumping innings win over Surrey.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been surprised because I’ve said all along that it’s going to be an incredibly competitive league this year,” said Moxon.
“By all accounts they (Lancashire) have bowled really well, and I think having Jimmy Anderson at the start of the season kind of set the tone for them, with his quality and all the attributes that he has.
“When you win early in the season it gives everybody confidence and that momentum carries on, and I think the fact they’ve just beaten Surrey so comprehensively, having lost to Durham before that, is a sign that they’re going to be around for a while.
“They’re not just going to be one-hit wonders, and they won’t be fazed by coming to Headingley.”
Lancashire, indeed, have lost only one of their last 16 games against Yorkshire, with that defeat coming in the most recent meeting in 2014.
But Yorkshire are especially formidable at home, where they are undefeated in 19 matches.
“It’s a big test for both teams,” said Moxon.
“They’re the form team, if you like, in the competition, and we’re the champions, and it’s a massive game so early in the season. It’s a Roses game, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, it couldn’t be any better really.
“They’re 19 points ahead of us at the moment and, clearly, we don’t want them getting any further ahead.”
Bresnan’s return is a fillip to Yorkshire, who have missed the control that he gives with the ball.
The all-rounder was one of the club’s top performers last year and had a particulary excellent season with the bat.
“It’s good to have Bres available,” said Moxon. “It’s like having a new player really.
“He’s a three-dimensional cricketer in all forms of the game.
“It’s a big boost to us to have him back.”