ReportMiddlesex do not have the walk of a team fraught with relegation nerves, suggests Vithushan Ehantharajah
Middlesex 204 (Edwards 5-79, Abbott 3-25) and 14 for 1 drew with Hampshire 146 (Finn 3-41, Helm 3-43)
Two games to go in the Championship season and the 2016 Champions are in the relegation places. Middlesex do not have the walk of a team fraught with nerves. Matters are very much still in their hands. But in leaving this fixture against Hampshire with a low-points draw, Division Two cricket is only two games away. Now is the time to worry.
There was an element of “here’s what you could have won” at Uxbridge. A total of 13 wickets fell between the start of play and the early tea, taken at the end of the Hampshire first innings. It would be 14 by stumps. Middlesex, bowled out earlier in the day, carried over a first-innings lead of 58 into they second-innings A fraction of the 234 overs lost on the first three days would have made things interesting.
“It would have been nice to get another couple of sessions in,” said James Franklin, Middlesex’s captain, frustrated with how things have unfolded so far this season. At the start of the day, Franklin set his side the objective of four bonus points. They at least leave Uxbridge with those. “To leave the day with nine points, having only play a day’s cricket in total, it’s not too bad.”
Both sides notched all bowling points with relative ease, on a surface that asked for lengths two-feet fuller than your standard first-class fair. But it was in the batting points that the real bunfight took place.
Middlesex, having started play 162 for 7, lost Ollie Rayner and Tom Helm, leaving them nine down with only 169 on the board. Slow but steady progress was made by John Simpson and Steven Finn to creep up to the magical 200 mark. Then, with a sharp single, the first batting point came up in the 71st over. It might have been a different story had Hampshire captain Jimmy Adams not dropped Simpson when the keeper-batsman was on 16. With Middlesex on 204, the innings came to an end when Fidel Edwards took Simpson’s middle stump for a walk.
That completed Edwards’ 20th first-class five-wicket haul and his first for Hampshire since September 2015. Then, Nottinghamshire were on the receiving end of his six for 88. In the intervening period, injuries have prevented him from turning out for more than nine matches in two seasons.
Whatever uncertainty Middlesex showed with the bat stopped there. As a bowling unit, they bossed the middle session enough to not only bowl Hampshire out for 146, but also leave the away dressing room worrying about a potential dash and declaration to force a positive result. The order from first team coach Craig White for the start of the third innings of the match was for 10-overs of one-day bowling to give little away.
The 10 Hampshire wickets were shared between the four bowlers used: Tom Helm and Finn taking three apiece, though James Harris could lay claim to being the pick of them. He was more consistent with his line and was able to back it up with some incisive deliveries to bowling allrounder Ian Holland and 18-year-old debutant Felix Organ, along with a fortuitous run out when he got a finger on a return drive from Gareth Berg to find the nonstriker, Kyle Abbott, short of his crease. Ollie Rayner nabbed a wicket, too, when Tom Alsop edged the spinner’s first ball of the match through to Simpson.
Nine overs, 14 runs and one wicket (Sam Robson, caught at second slip off Abbott for a 17-ball duck) into the Middlesex second-innings, then weather ensured it had the last say, with a further 35 overs gone with the rain.
So, who leaves the happier? Well, Hampshire: their position of fourth, 12 points above the relegation zone, summing up the cluttered nonsense that is the Division One table. Above Hampshire sit Surrey, with one win in 12.
Middlesex have two, though Somerset’s three means a spot above them, with both level on 123 points. Naturally, they’re more worried. “We could do with a bit of grass at Lord’s next week,” said one Middlesex player on day two, when it became apparent that little could be gained from this fixture and started to think ahead to their penultimate Championship fixture against Lancashire. Franklin’s words at stumps merely echoed previous Middlesex captains when looking for a favourable pitch: they’ll get what they’re given.
As for the defending champions being in this position, needing big, flawless wins from their last two games (they go to Taunton for what is set to be a relegation showdown) and favours from rivals – Surrey host Somerset next week – Franklin maligned a lack of ruthlessness that got them over the line in 2016.
“We’ve had a couple of near misses with games that we have drawn that we possible could have won. We’ve lost games where, if we played well for an hour, we possibly could have drawn. It’s the fine margins and I think it’s a reflection of how strong the division is.”
Both fixtures against Essex come to mind: a lack of a declaration on the penultimate evening seeing Middlesex fall two wickets short of a win at Lord’s in April. Then, in the day-night fixture at Chelmsford, Simon Harmer ran through them to seal a thrilling win. At another time, those slips might not have been so costly. But with two fewer games and a quarter of the teams in the Division up for relegation – imagine the carnage if five teams were up for the chop in the Premier League each season? – there has never been a worse time to be slack.
“I think it shows how good the whole competition is,” says Franklin. “Anyone being able to beat everyone. Essex have been phenomenal this year and they deserve to be the champions. With Essex being so far out in front and Warwickshire being right at the bottom, everyone else is scrapping it out.”
The comfort for Middlesex is the return of key 2016 players against Lancashire next week. Toby Roland-Jones is available again after England duty, so too Dawid Malan after the one-off Twenty20 with West Indies. Tim Murtagh and Paul Stirling are back from Ireland duty and 2016’s leading runscorer Nick Gubbins had a run out in the Seconds and is fit to return.
“We need to work out what the best combination is for next week,” says Franklin. “If we can get to the levels we are capable of as a team, we can certainly finish that game as a win.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport