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George Dobell at The Oval
September 5, 2013
Middlesex 294 (Dexter 90*) and 235 (Malan 50, Keedy 6-101) beat Surrey 145 (Rayner 8-46) and 238 (Amla 84, Rayner 7-72) by 146 runs
The similarities between Ollie Rayner and Jim Laker are not, at first glance, obvious but on the ground that England's greatest offspinner called home for many years, Rayner produced a more than passable impression.
Rayner, gaining sharp turn and steepling bounce from the sort of pitch spinners dream about, bowled his side to a three-day win over Middlesex's local rivals Surrey with the sort of figures that bear comparison with Laker's unparalleled 19 for 90 at Old Trafford in 1956.
Rayner's career-record until now has had something of a journeyman quality to it. A valuable contributor, he has tended to provide more of a supporting than starring role. Before this game, he had taken five five-wicket hauls in a 74 match first-class career and 25 wickets in 10 games this season.
But here, following his 8 for 46 in the first innings, Rayner claimed 7 for 72 in the second. Those match figures - 15 for 118 - are the best by a Middlesex bowler since 1955 - when Fred Titmus claimed 15 for 95 against Somerset at Bath - and the seventh best in the first-class history of the club. Rayner also claimed three catches in the match off the bowling of his colleagues, meaning he had a hand in 18 of the 20 Surrey wickets to fall in the match.
While the victory sustains Middlesex's outside hopes of winning the title - more realistically, it sets them up for an admirable top-three finish - the result leaves Surrey bottom of Division One and with four wins in 29 games since they were promoted at the end of 2011.
That it took Middlesex so long to achieve victory - the game was deep inside the extra half-hour when the final wicket fell - was largely due to Hashim Amla. The South African batsman produced a masterclass in temperament and technique to negate the pitch and the bowling for more than three-and-a-half hours. He was beaten often, sometimes by deliveries that leaped from a length and passed above his shoulder, and survived a couple of false strokes, but demonstrated the coolest of heads and the softest of hands. Rayner, quite reasonably, rated it "one of the best innings" he had ever seen.
Surrey's batting was much improved in their second innings. Demonstrating an application that was absent on the second day, they simply found that the damage they had already incurred was too deep to repair. Arun Harinath, coming to the crease on the back of a return of 1, 0, 1, 0, 1 in his last five Championship innings, added 44 for the first wicket with the impressive Rory Burns, while Steve Davies helped Amla add 86 for the fifth wicket.
Amla's value to Surrey was demonstrated most clearly when he was out. It precipitated a decline that saw four wickets fall for five runs before Jade Dernbach thrashed a quick 22 to delay the inevitable.
It all left Alec Stewart, Surrey's temporary director of cricket, bristling with indignation. Justifying the pitch - he credited the groundsman with an "outstanding" performance - Stewart insisted that "draws are no good to us; we have to win our home games." But preparing such a surface, and the resultant importance of winning the toss, was a huge gamble. In this instance, it backfired.
"Our performance over the first two days was not good enough," Stewart said. "Unfortunately, in the first innings, there was no application. There was very little thought process. If you don't apply yourself, you get punished. Once you go into the second innings 150 behind, you have to play out of your skin to go close.
"The way we went about our second innings was much better. It showed that, if you were prepared to bat time, you could bat on that surface."
Stewart refuted the suggestion that, even if Amla had helped Surrey to victory - and a target of 385 was as distant as the moon on this pitch - that it would only have papered over the cracks at Surrey. Insisting that picking youth for youth's sake would solve nothing, Stewart said he would "pick the sides to give Surrey the best chance of staying up."
But whether seeing the likes of Amla, Vikram Solanki and Zander de Bruyn help avoid relegation progresses this club any more than seeing younger, homegrown players learn from the experience of being relegated is debateable. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, three months after former director of cricket Chris Adams was sacked because, in part, of the lack of direction his squad seemed to have and the mature age-profile of his teams, that Surrey are making the same errors. To be fair to Stewart, he inherited the squad and a lowly position. Surrey were sixth when he took over.
"We'll probably have to win two of our last three now," Stewart said. "When you've won four out of 29 in the first division, it's a big, big ask."
Still, this was a match that belonged to Rayner. It speaks volumes for his innate modesty that, moments after the game, he credited Middlesex's batsmen as the architects of victory. And it is true that, after a couple of poor games, they performed admirably in tough conditions.
Dawid Malan, without a Championship half-century this season until Tuesday, now has two, while Chris Rogers followed up his excellent batting with a wonderful piece of anticipation to dismiss Amla - sensing the batsman shaping to glance on the leg side, he pounced to his left from leg slip - and timed a brave declaration to perfection. With rain forecast for Friday, Middlesex did not want to risk the game going into a final day.
"We haven't batted awfully well of late," Rayner said. "But our batters put Surrey under a lot of scoreboard pressure, so it was a top effort from them.
"I went three games without a wicket at the start of the season, so it's nice to contribute. The pitch has helped me out a lot. Some balls were passing at head height. I hope it shows the Lord's groundsman, Mike Hunt, what we can do if we have a spinning wicket."
Meanwhile Surrey announced the release of Jon Lewis. The 38-year-old seamer joined the club at the start of 2012 after the best part of two decades with Gloucestershire. A regular in white ball cricket, Lewis has barely featured in the first-class team this season but is currently seeking opportunities to continue his career at another county.
By off-loading Lewis and, perhaps, one or two other players - the likes of Zander de Bruyn, who is out of contract, and Gary Keedy, who is not - from their payroll, Surrey could be making room within their salary allocation for new recruits. But on the evidence of recent times, simply signing new names is not the answer.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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