Finn and Wright duel enlivens contest
Sussex 229 and 288 for 6 (Wright 151*) lead Middlesex 496 (Robson 166, Panesar 5-95) by 20 runs
The talk of Hove centred on how Steven Finn would react to being omitted by England. But Luke Wright was in no mood to ensure Finn had a soft landing on his Middlesex return, with an unbeaten 151 to keep alive Sussex's chances of preserving their unbeaten Championship record.
The ghost at the Lord's feast, Finn probably had visions of returning to his county to similar effect to the bowler squeezed out of last year's showpiece Test. Then, Graham Onions took 9 for 67 for Durham, only his own hand, responsible for a brilliant run-out, denied Onions all ten.
Finn began rather differently. Coming in at No. 10, he didn't score in 16 balls as Monty Panesar neatly wrapped up the Middlesex innings. Far from being unleashed on the Sussex batsmen, Finn then had to bind his time. Second change. But he later said it was all part of the master plan: "I said that I didn't want to take the new ball I thought the other guys should."
After 16 overs of waiting, Finn produced a brutal lifter with his fourth delivery to elicit an edge from Luke Wells. Three balls later, Rory Hamilton-Brown was dismissed by a similar delivery, the sort that Championship batsmen would once have been familiar receiving when each county seemed to possess a Caribbean quick.
The rest of Finn's spell produced the most compelling cricket of the match. Bowling noticeably faster than anyone else in the game, and generating stifling bounce, he harassed Ed Joyce and Wright for the duration of his ten-over burst.
It has often been said that Finn doesn't fit into England's strategy of "bowling dry", and, perhaps, this was further evidence of that: at times he over-pitched or dropped too wide, and himself admitted that, "there were a few too many four balls". Yet there is a danger of focusing more on what Finn cannot - yet - do than what he can: namely, bowl with rare venom that makes him capable of troubling the best batsmen on the flattest tracks.
Neither Joyce nor Wright have played Test cricket but, with Tim Murtagh and Corey Collymore bowling an unrelenting off-stump line while Finn let rip, they received a taste of Test match intensity here. It was a challenge that, just about, the two players were up to as they repaired Sussex's innings from the rubble of 45 for 4. But only just: Finn had Joyce dropped at second slip, while Wright flashed over gully.
Joyce and Wright are a delightful pair: the elegant Irish left-hander, classical in his shot selection and understated at the crease; while Wright bristles with intent in everything he does, always looking for an invitation to lash a drive through the covers. But a very effective pair they make: Joyce has 868 Championship runs at 86 apiece; Wright now has 517 at 74. After adding 110 with Joyce, Ben Brown added another 107 with Wright to edge Sussex into the lead. The manner in which Wright handled Finn was particularly impressive. He did not always look comfortable, but he is hardly alone in that.
But, without falling into recklessness, he approached what could have been an overwhelming challenge - he arrived at the wicket with Sussex four down, needing another 221 runs to make Middlesex bat again and Finn letting rip - with an endearing positivity. At one stage Wright hit four consecutive Finn deliveries for four: a booming off drive; a rasping cut; an edge over the slips from a delivery with extra bounce; and then another straight drive to show it all hadn't been a fluke.
The acclaim when he reached his 11th first-class hundred with another lashed drive through the covers was well deserved; the cut shots he played whenever Finn dropped marginally short spoke of a batsman of far too much calibre to be written off as a Twenty20 specialist.
While Wright has become a short-form player par excellence, this season, after arriving late following his IPL excursions, he has put his mind to the challenge of first-class batting. Middlesex know this better than anyone: he saved the Championship game at Lord's last month in making 77 and 187. Wright knows he is unlikely to play Test but, two years on from his last ODI appearance, is surely worth another look in that format. Ashley Giles, the watching England ODI coach, would certainly have been impressive.
For all Sussex's recovery, Middlesex will still expect Finn and co. to end their unbeaten record this season: they lead by just 21 runs with four wickets remaining. But, whatever happens, Sussex will be heartened by Panesar's spell of 4 for 16 this morning: if it proves the catalyst for him rediscovering his form then he should win an England touring spot to Australia. Despite likely defeat here, Panesar could yet - especially if Wright treats every county bowling attack as if they are Middlesex's - win a Championship title too.