September 25, 2013

Stick or twist at Middlesex?

An encouraging campaign was undermined by glaring failures in the middle order and seam attack

In the immediate aftermath of any unsuccessful season, the bitter taste of shortfall smothers our views of what we expected to happen at the start. My very first article was entitled "More runs key to reaching heights" and, unsurprisingly, it is the lack of runs which prevented us from finishing in the top two. Realistically though, it was always going to be exceptionally difficult unless everyone performed to the max.

As it turned out we only produced enough runs to win six games out of 16, which is not good enough. The middle order failed, and the bowlers suffered as a result, as they had less to work with, and were simply not able to muster something special from nothing.

Most fans would say that Middlesex's year has been, if anything, above standard. Third in the top flight going into the final round, we haven't been relegated like our arch rivals, Surrey, and the last time we won the title was 1993 anyway, so anyone under 25, will not remember us winning much. It's not such a shocking season really.

Yet we spent the season setting up platforms and not going on. There was a genuine title hope if we had capitalised, but it never came to fruition. Chris Rogers and Sam Robson scored six out of the eight hundreds, and each passed a thousand runs. These big opening platforms should have been the springboard of the innings, catapulting the side into cricketing hyperspace, giving leads, batting points and a rest for the young bowlers. But we threw it away. With middle-order slapstick collapses and a lack of discipline, we were unable to capitalise.

Neil Dexter, Joe Denly, Dawid Malan and John Simpson averaged between 21 and 32, with the failures of Denly and Malan hitting hardest. They mustered no centuries in 47 Championship innings with a combined top score of just 77. Their lack of substantial contributions was a major reason Middlesex were not able to persevere and challenge for the title.

Malan is 26 and Denly 27, so they should be peaking. Denly played every game this year, and was given his chance; Malan was dropped but still played in 12 matches. One would think that the opportunities given but not taken will weigh heavily and both are a huge cause for concern, because they not showing a return on the investment.

Compared to our rivals, we were outscored in centuries even when they all had a game in hand. We scored eight, with six coming from the two openers and one from the overseas replacement for Rogers. In the entire division, all other sides scored more centuries, apart from Somerset who matched us and Derbyshire who have struck less.

Make no mistake, changes need to happen and not just with the bat. Whilst the batsmen struggled to post big scores, the bowlers suffered with more overs, less rest, more injuries and less runs behind them to take pressure off. It is entirely unsustainable, and it took its toll.

Lord's is often a docile and unhelpful surface, unless a bowler has something in their game that doesn't rely on external conditions. James Harris and Toby Roland-Jones found out the hard way that leading a Division One attack when your team's runs dry up is difficult and has a burden on both your body and performance. They managed just eight and nine games respectively, out of 16, and picked up just one five-wicket hall.

The experience of Tim Murtagh hasn't been clouded by this disappointment though, with another stellar season of 60 wickets, even with Ireland interruptions. His success, along with the likes of Alan Richardson, David Masters, Glen Chapple, etc, reinforced a strong message to the likes of Roland-Jones and Harris, in particular, that county cricket offers huge success to accurate bowlers that have discipline. Neither are exceptionally quick, and they would benefit immensely if they embraced and worked hard on this facet of their game.

In addition to Murtagh, the breakthrough of Ollie Rayner with 41 wickets, including a career best 15 for 118 was a significant plus. We have been looking for a spinner capable of taking wickets, and many including myself had questioned Rayner, preferring Ravi Patel. It is good to see a substantial effort to prove the critics wrong.

The factors that would turn Middlesex into a winning side would be breaking down their weak links. A young seam attack that needs experience and better skill was exposed by a struggling middle order to limit us to mid-table. The big question is whether the personnel need changing or just motivating and disciplining.

Is it time to consolidate, like Durham, or attempt to build and change like Surrey and Northants? It boils down to whether this squad has everyone's trust or whether change is required, particularly with the middle order.

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