Robson battles for an England retrial
Middlesex 255 for 1 (Robson 144*, Gubbins 101) vs Essex
Seven months ago, 10,000 people crammed into Lord's to see the dying embers of their title-clinching victory over Yorkshire - perhaps the most enthralling finish to a season in the County Championship's 127-year history. Middlesex's return here came in front of a quarter as many people, on an altogether less salubrious day that was truncated by bad light. Yet for all the contrasts, Middlesex retained the look of champions, as Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins combined to add 241 for the opening wicket.
Robson made a pair against Yorkshire last September - no way to end a season in which he had been a crucial member of Middlesex's side. He has begun 2017 rather better, and followed 84 in Middlesex's attritional draw at the Ageas Bowl with a century of striking fluency and assurance.
A reputation as a steadfast accumulator earned Robson seven Tests with England in the summer of 2014, but here he did not merely accumulate unobtrusively, but dominated.
Three sumptuous shots in one over, from Aaron Beard, distilled this innings best: a straight drive slightly to the bowler's left, a dreamy flick to midwicket and a straight drive slightly to the bowler's right. This was an outstanding innings, the only semblance of a chance the edge through the slips off Ravi Bopara to bring up his century.
The sight of Robson raising his best at Lord's in early season is familiar indeed: his first match here in 2016 with 231 and 106 against Warwickshire, followed by a century in his next home game too.
Robson has not figured in recent England speculation but, at 27, his career is still embryonic. The abiding impression here was of a player more rounded and assertive than when he was picked for England. One pull shot, off Ravi Bopara, was contemptuous, and Robson also used his feet breezily against Simon Harmer's offspin yet with none of his defensive fortitude lost. Robson's judgement outside offstump, sometimes an issue during his Test appearances, was impeccable.
Gubbins was almost as impressive. He enjoyed a bumper 1400-run season in 2016 - including 125 and 93 in that seminal victory over Yorkshire - to earn an England Lions touring berth, and he emits the sense of being one of English cricket's coming men.
He played like it here. Though he drove proficiently, Gubbins was less fluent than Robson; this was an innings defined by grit, chanceless until he nibbled Beard behind shortly after reaching his hundred. Gubbins is determined to improve his game against spin, essential if he is to make the elevation to Test cricket that so many expect. When Harmer came on in the tenth over of the day to bowl his offspin - surely not what Ryan ten Doeschate envisaged after opting to insert Middlesex without a toss - Gubbins greeted him with an exquisite cut through the covers. Adroit on his feet, he twice lofted Harmer for a pair of sixes over long on too, shots infused with nonchalant swagger.
"You're not looking at outcomes - you're purely looking to face as many balls as you can in the early season," said Gubbins. "It's one of those days when you rock up and know that you're going to be stuck in, and mentally attune yourself to that. It was a bit of a grind at times."
The counter-attack against the new ball - 40 came from the opening ten overs, leading to fielders being relocated from the slips to run-saving positions - left Essex looking bereft of inspiration. Their decision to bowl first is easily criticised, yet cloud cover was ever-present all day, the pitch retains a green tinge and Middlesex would also have inserted had they had the option.
Essex's frustration should be not with ten Doeschate's choice but their lack of control; they bowled only eight maidens all day. Here was a reminder that most Division One batting line-ups will be far less lax in protecting their wickets than Somerset were during Essex's victory at Taunton last week.
"There wasn't very much swing at all," said Chris Silverwood, the Essex head coach. "You have to give credit to Sam Robson, who batted brilliantly, and also to Nick Gubbins for another great knock. Every day is going to be a tough challenge for us in Division One, but we are learning all the time."
As if the hundreds scored by Robson and Gubbins were not enough, Middlesex can draw further strength from Nick Compton's recovery from a shoulder injury; he scored a century for the second eleven this week at Radlett. Yet whether he will return for the club's next Championship game is unclear, given the fine impression being made by Stevie Eskinazi. It is a selection dilemma befitting the champions.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts