Joyce masterclass keeps Sussex afloat
Middlesex 44 for 0 trail Sussex 229 (Joyce 101, Berg 3-49) by 185 runs
Ed Joyce has enjoyed better, and more profitable, days than this, of course. But in terms of keeping his county afloat against determined opponents, on a testing pitch, Sussex's captain can have played few finer innings.
Losing the toss was a blow, no doubt, and seeing far too many of his colleagues falling short of expectations in the care and concentration stakes must have frustrated Joyce. But thanks almost entirely to his second century of the season, the Championship leaders - and only unbeaten side in Division One - are certainly not out of this contest, even though the first day scorecard may appear heavily weighted in their opponents' favour.
This pitch is one of the re-laid variety, the same surface, indeed, on which Sussex beat Middlesex by eight wickets last August. On that occasion, the hosts triumphed because their quick bowlers generated more pace and bounce, an advantage which they still hold this summer - at least for the time being. That will change quite dramatically if England decide tomorrow that Steve Finn is surplus to requirements for the second Ashes Test. Should that happen, Finn will replace Gurjit Sandhu in the line-up here in plenty of time to take out any feelings of frustration on Sussex's second innings.
Even without Finn and the injured pace pair of Toby Roland-Jones and James Harris, Middlesex were more than a handful for all but Joyce, their former opener.
They may not have won in the Championship for two months, and their title hopes were significantly reduced by heavy defeats to Yorkshire and Warwickshire, but Middlesex don't do moping. With memories of what happened here last year, and encouraged by a decent if pale covering of grass, they chose to bowl first and then backed up that judgment by dismissing Sussex an hour before the close.
Regular sideways movement and a bit of up and down bounce meant that batting was seldom straightforward. But neither was it anything like impossible, as Joyce proved while keeping his Championship average above 90, and several wickets were handed over too easily for home comfort.
The first strike of the day - and Sandhu's first in Championship cricket - certainly did not fall into the gift-wrapped category. Sandhu is a 21-year-old left-armer who bowls medium-fast but has the potential to add pace as he fills out, produced a beauty to find the edge of Luke Wells' bat.
But Mike Yardy fell first ball, to Gareth Berg, playing at one he could have left alone, Rory Hamilton-Brown lost his off stump when shouldering arms to Neil Dexter, Luke Wright drove hard and fast to short midwicket after advancing on Ollie Rayner and Ben Brown looped a leading edge to mid-on as Sandhu enjoyed a second success.
As for Joyce, he was simply different class. Any width on offer was punished with crisp cuts while most of his cover drives skimmed over the parched turf before fielders could move a muscle. It was a joy to watch and it would have been a travesty if he had fallen short of three figures.
But for some stout defence from No. 10 Jimmy Anyon, Joyce might have run out of partners. Still 18 short of his century when the eighth wicket fell, he was grateful to Anyon's straight bat - finally reaching the landmark by uppercutting his 162nd ball, from Berg, for a flamboyant six to go with 13 fours.
Joyce's masterpiece ended when he played on to Dexter, a dismissal which frustrated him so much that he accidentally disturbed the stumps still further with an ill-directed swish of the bat. Embarrassed, Joyce hurriedly set about trying to repair the damage before leaving the middle. Whether Sussex can make amends quite so readily remains to be seen but Middlesex will know there is plenty of battling still to be done.