May 28, 2013

Problems on the horizon for Middlesex

They may lead the betting for the Championship title but the successful side of the first months of the season is about to be broken up

As the sun tries to break through and disrupt my exam preparation, so Middlesex's fantastic start has been a little disrupted too. After so much early-season success winning the first three games, both indifferent form and rain has prevented us from really following through and reinforcing our position.

Unfortunately once more the batting is the focal point, and the worry is the paucity of runs outside the opening pair, both in the County Championship and the YB40.

Much like my University exams, the more that can be ticked off the list, the closer summer gets, and the more I slack. As the season progresses, Middlesex become more comfortable and they get into a habit of relying on certain players for success.

As the worrying and fretting over my second year continues, Middlesex are second in the table, with only a point separating us from Sussex at the top. Both the leading two run-scorers and wicket-takers in the County Championship have Middlesex next to their name.

But, things are not going to remain static. There are major obstacles ahead, and it's not time to relax. The next three Championship games are against Sussex, currently top with a game in hand over us, Yorkshire, just nine points behind and Warwickshire who are the current holders.

The Friends Life t20 will begin within the next month, so really it's time to pull up our socks. This will be the toughest part of the season. We have got into a good position, and letting it slip now would be all too familiar.

Because Middlesex like to play an allrounder, usually Gareth Berg, at No. 7, when an injury does occur or a bowler misses a fixture, a five-pronged attack can be manoeuvred into a four-pronged one and another batsman can slip in. In this sense the balance of the side looks well set, but there is a chronic problem with middle order runs.

Before Monday's YB40 at Radlett, Joe Denly, Dawid Malan and Neil Dexter, who make up the middle order, have in 26 innings mustered five fifties and no hundreds. This is in contrast to Rogers and Robson who in 22 innings have three hundreds and seven fifties. Clearly some are pulling their weight more than others. Malan's 96 against Yorkshire was a start at redressing the balance.

Undoubtedly, Sam Robson (652 runs) and Chris Rogers (552 runs) are carrying the top order, whereas the invaluable Tim Murtagh who has taken 30 wickets already in five matches, is at the top of the bowling list, spearheading the attack.

In the YB40 it seem Middlesex had given up a little after only two games. Both the batting and bowling looked serious issues with only three batsmen scoring fifties in two games. 50s and 60s are good for partnerships, but they are clearly not enough to lay a platform to win. Monday's success came from a big innings.

On the bowling front, in two complete games Middlesex took just six wickets, with no one bowler taking more than a single wicket. There doesn't seem to be a strike bowler or a partnership breaker, and it feels rather hopeless. It was a shocking start but Toby Rolland-Jones and James Harris proved that ability with the red ball can be transferred to the white ball. Long may it continue.

This situation in the Championship is a little bit like getting a run of good questions in exams. It appears as if I am cruising comfortably, but ultimately if something else had come up I would have been, well, stumped. Sooner or later fortune may run out, as Rogers and Robson will not always be there to cover for failures, and if others cannot fill their boots, especially when Rogers leaves for the Ashes, then will Middlesex will crumble?

Adam Voges will be Rogers' replacement and there will be a shake-up of the order, pushing Joe Denly to open, and allowing Voges to slot into the middle, hopefully with the returning Eoin Morgan too.

But Morgan and Finn will most likely be caught up in the International summer and Voges could also play one day cricket for Australia. There is going to be a lot of ins and outs, especially during the T20 tournament in June.

There may also be issues with Toby Roland-Jones who is likely to play in the England Lions side during August, the most crucial time in the Championship, and Tim Murtagh is likely to play in Ireland's three further one-day fixtures this year. Losing such key players at key times may hurt.

On the one hand, you don't want to change a winning formula, which this side does have, but at the same time, problems really have to be anticipated. With a lot of change coming, it will not be plain sailing for the next few months.

Jack Mendel writes about cricket on the Sideline Agenda and runs his own blog, Stumpycricket. He tweets here