Lancashire ran out of time to stave off relegation, and return to Division Two of the LV= County Championship after their Old Trafford shoot-out with Middlesex ended in a stalemate.
Only a home victory could have sent Middlesex down instead and -– after bad weather took 14 overs out of the last day – the Londoners closed out the draw on 341-8 declared and with no prospect of a successful chase of 253 in the hour remaining.
Veteran Lancashire captain Glen Chapple performed heroics to keep hopes of survival alive when he scrambled the necessary extra batting bonus point here 24 hours earlier.
But neither he nor the best efforts of Junaid Khan (3-84) and Simon Kerrigan (3-106) could break Middlesex’s resistance as they secured top-flight safety at their hosts’ expense.
By the time Chapple had to accept the inevitable, glorious evening sunshine had replaced the morning rain which narrowed Lancashire’s window of opportunity – yet for the Red Rose, the mood was sombre as they were relegated for the second time in three years.
Middlesex had resumed on 202-4 on an initially dank Manchester day, just 114 in front and vulnerable to a surge of wickets for the home attack.
They were to lose only four in 60 overs, before Chapple shook hands with his opposite number Chris Rogers midway through the last session.
Middlesex can therefore contemplate the closest of shaves at the end of a season they began with a rush of early victories.
They ran out of steam alarmingly from June onwards, but rediscovered much-needed resilience to beat the drop with draws here and – from a highly-improbable position – away to Somerset last week.
For Lancashire, the step back into the second tier comes in a summer which has seen an overdue title success for their Roses rivals Yorkshire – and means last year’s two promoted teams, themselves and Northamptonshire, have both gone back down immediately.
In the 10.2 overs possible before the rain arrived, Junaid provided the solitary wicket before lunch – but it was a big one, with a very good delivery.
Eoin Morgan was Middlesex’s chief hope to defuse any home momentum, but was undone by late movement back into him from Lancashire’s left-armer to hit his back pad and win an obvious lbw verdict.
There was then time for just one more ball, before heavy drizzle swept in and precluded all but 35 minutes of the morning session.
A frustrating interruption followed for the Red Rose – who nonetheless returned still on a mission, Junaid ending Neil Dexter’s vigil with the score on 222.
The stoic Dexter had been dropped on nought the previous evening, and by the time he finally played on had held Lancashire up for 111 minutes in all.
Another drop, Lancashire’s seventh of the match, cost just a single when Bury-born John Simpson mis-pulled Kerrigan to mid-wicket just two balls after being put down by a diving Jos Buttler off the first over of a new Chapple spell.
The next time the captain brought himself back into the attack, he struck instantly and, it seemed, importantly – nipping one off the seam into Toby Roland-Jones to have him lbw.
But if 277-8 40 minutes before tea represented plenty of hope still for a feasible chase, it was an illusion which did not last.
Instead, tailenders James Harris and Tim Murtagh resisted with minimal alarm in an unbroken stand of 64 – to hugely contrasting emotions on the pitch, but uniform misery among the vast majority of a near 1,000 crowd who had been willing a different conclusion.
Chapple, a Lancashire debutant as a teenager last century and a near ever-present for most of the 22 years since, kept his team’s hopes alive by earning a third batting point on day three – as well as taking four first-innings wickets.
“Whatever would have happened in this game we would have said we needed to improve,” said Chapple, who has had to divide his attention between captaincy and the coaching role after Peter Moores left for England at the start of the summer. “We have to be honest with ourselves.
“The lads have tried their best over the year – they’ve given everything – but there’s areas we can improve, we know that.”