Captain Rogers rises to the task
Middlesex 229 for 3 (Rogers 93*, Denly 67) trail Sussex 283 (Murtagh 5-55) by 54 runs
Chris Rogers is clearly warming to this captaincy business. Asked a month or so ago to take charge of Middlesex's Championship side while Neil Dexter tried to find some form, the 34-year-old Australian found runs hard to come for a few innings.
But Rogers, who averaged 58 during last season's title-winning campaign in Division Two, finished today just seven runs away from completing back-to-back centuries. An unbeaten 138 to secure a draw against Lancashire at Liverpool last week signalled his return to prime form and here he moved smoothly into the 90s.
By the time bad light ended play six overs early, Middlesex were only 54 runs behind Sussex - and, with seven wickets in hand, there is plenty of power for them to add. Get a good lead and then put the visitors under real pressure will be the plan.
With Joe Denly having contributed 67 to a second wicket stand of 145 and Eoin Morgan making 52 of the 77 so far added with Rogers for the fourth wicket, the scoreboard suggests reasonably plain sailing for Middlesex. But a lot of hard graft and a fair bit of good fortune during the early stages of their innings should not be discounted.
Indeed, Sussex's total of 283 looked as though it might be highly competitive while Jimmy Anyon and Steve Magoffin were making excellent use of the new ball. Magoffin pinned Sam Robson lbw without scoring and Denly, especially, had a torrid time against Anyon. Two edges went into the slip cordon without finding a hand before a no-ball call almost certainly saved the former England batsman when he was still short of double figures.
Given that the unfortunate Dexter has been left out of this match in order to accommodate an extra bowler, Middlesex looked light on batting. It was crucial, therefore, that Rogers and Denly battled through - and battle they did.
As happened during the Sussex innings, batting became much easier once the new ball lost some of its shine and hardness. Runs began to flow, to such an extent that Denly's dismissal - padding up to Monty Panesar - came as quite a surprise. Dawid Malan did not last long. But if Sussex thought they could make real headway, then the ever-more-determined Rogers and the increasingly fluent Morgan stopped them in their tracks.
This was Morgan's fourth innings since his return from the IPL (where he failed to see even a minute's action for the eventual champions, Kolkata Knight Riders). More importantly, it was his first decent chance to start putting a winter of woe behind him. He took it with both hands.
Dropped from England's Test team after a poor series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Morgan seemed to be losing confidence, rather than regaining it, when he faced the same opponents in limited-overs cricket during February. But here he was standing noticeably taller at the crease and starting to time the ball beautifully again.
"I felt good," Morgan said. "It's nice to be back and spending time at the crease is what pleased me most. I think it is very important I score runs in all forms of cricket. I've been told [by England] that weight of runs is the way back in."
With Kevin Pietersen announcing his retirement from limited-overs internationals, Morgan has it in him to be England's best batsman at the shorter forms of the game. He still regards Pietersen's absence as "a hammer blow", however, and insists it will be "very hard to replace his runs".
Talking of runs, by adding another 41 runs for their last two wickets this morning, Sussex completed an impressive recovery. Totalling 283 after being 66 for 5 represents a good effort - an effort which would have looked better still had Middlesex not managed to cling on during the early stages of their reply.
Ben Brown, batting at No. 7, posted a season's best 70 on Wednesday and tailenders Anyon and Panesar raised the bar on Thursday when runs were badly needed. Add Magoffin's unbeaten contribution at No. 9 and Middlesex endured a frustrating hour or so before wrapping things up.
Steven Finn could not improve on his three-for but perseverance paid off for Tim Murtagh, who forced Anyon to play on and, in the process, collected five wickets in an innings for the first time this season.
There was still time for Panesar to play a couple of glorious drives down the ground, to general approval from almost everyone at Lord's. The real battle was still to come, however, and it was one Middlesex were winning by the close of play.