Middlesex stir hopes of a revival
Spring is here, the historic gates at Lord's are open and, for once, Middlesex followers are brimming with optimism. The last time Middlesex won the Division One title was 1993, the same year I was born (not connected), so obviously it has been 20 years of hurt. It's a little early in the season to speculate about winning the title. But it isn't often Middlesex will be (joint) top of the championship, even after two games.
The clinical nature of the victories in the first two games this season has been almost a bit too good to be true. Bearing in mind that one triumph has been against a newly promoted and rather poor looking Derbyshire, and the other against Nottinghamshire, the archetypal 'maybe next year' side, Middlesex should be relatively pleased with how ruthless they have been, but as any Middlesex fan will no doubt know, such comprehensive success is often met by a dip.
After skittling Nottinghamshire for 182 at Trent Bridge in their second innings to set up victory, a week later Middlesex bowled out Derbyshire at Lord's for just 60: a pattern seems to be emerging. And with the attack at Middlesex's disposal, what is to stop the wins from continuing?
Although no centuries have been scored, many important landmarks have already been crossed. There have been fifties from both openers in both innings of the first game, and Sam Robson continued with a third consecutive fifty versus Derbyshire, albeit then making a golden duck in the second innings. Hopefully that isn't prophetic of the team.
Our beleaguered wicketkeeper, John Simpson, also struck a hard-fought 97 against Nottinghamshire in a vital lower middle order partnership. He and Gareth Berg helped to salvage the innings at 175-6 and took it to 291-6: clearly Invaluable. This lower-order strength certainly helps to negate the fact that at points, it looked worryingly as if we were slipping down the old route of crumbling when it mattered. There are still major issues, most notably with the middle order that consists of Joe Denly, Dawid Malan and Neil Dexter, who have all failed to pass fifty thus far. It will be a worry.
Yet, on the other hand, there are no 'bunnies' at all. Batsmen from seven to eleven all averaging between 15 and the mid 30s so there are constant contributions, and there is the prospect of Eoin Morgan returning from the IPL, and being out of favour with England. He would slot straight in and could be a major boost.
If Middlesex are going to challenge, their bowling is the strength. So far there have been three five-wicket hauls from Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland-Jones, and oddly enough, Neil Dexter, and even a hat-trick to polish off the Derbyshire innings from Roland-Jones.
In addition to the three major seamers, Murtagh, Finn and Roland Jones, new signing James Harris and all-rounder Gareth Berg will also be very important, spreading the workload to better manage injuries. It's a long season over three formats from April to September, and doubtlessly for fast bowlers injuries will appear. The replacements are not as high quality as Murtagh, Finn, Harris and Roland-Jones, so it will possibly be a case of how well the quicks can be managed and not overworked. Bowling out teams for 60 certainly helps the workload.
Finn managed 28 wickets in just five games last year, so his contribution in this time will be a crucial one. When he returns for England, Middlesex will certainly be thinner on the ground in terms of seamers. Should an injury occur when Finn is not available, it could potentially cause a few hiccups.
One chink in the armour is perhaps the not-so-reputable quality in the spin department. Ollie Rayner is no force to be reckoned with, with just 15 wickets in as many games in 2012, he is certainly picked as an all-rounder not a genuine spinner. He could be that disposable player to make way for Morgan upon his return, which would involve moving the keeper to seven, even if that meant not playing a frontline spinner.
A side can only be properly judged according to long term success, so for now basing title hopes upon beating Nottinghamshire and a newly promoted side is a little short sighted. At the same time however, there is plenty to suggest that the reasons for success in those two games will continue, as Middlesex have a great balance, a fearsome attack and a reliable top order, with plenty of depth.
Jack Mendel writes about cricket on the Sideline Agenda and runs his own blog, Stumpycricket. He tweets here