Yorkshire now eyeing second solace
Yorkshire 210 (Gale 66, Williamson 52) and 4 for 0 lead Middlesex 128 (Sidebottom 4-27) by 86 runs
With the correct mindset, if the Championship is lost, Yorkshire and Middlesex are still engaged in a worthwhile, cut-and-thrust contest for second place. It is worth a few bob and Yorkshire, in particular, need every penny they can lay their hands on.
Yorkshire are well placed to achieve it as well after despatching Middlesex in clinical fashion, claiming an 82-run lead on first innings after removing Middlesex's last seven wickets for 42 in only 13.5 overs. If a dire forecast proves accurate, there will not be much progress on the third day. But perhaps there is no need to cut costs by introducing brawn sandwiches at the tea interval quite yet.
It is not entirely true that no-one remembers runners-up. At least it offers the chance to grumble inconsequentially: "We came second that year," and come up with a plausible excuse or two, something you can't really do if you finish third. But essentially it feels like failure and satisfaction at progress made has an emptiness about it.
It was impossible to watch events unfold at Headingley without reflecting on the fact that 90 miles to the north, in Chester-le-Street, Durham were closing in on their third title in six years, a title which both of these counties had at one point of the season imagined might be theirs.
In May, Middlesex had momentum, a strong seam attack and a redoubtable pair of open batsmen in Chris Rogers and Sam Robson making light of weaknesses elsewhere. In midsummer it was Yorkshire, 10-1 outsiders at the start of the season, who felt that a first Championship for 12 years was in range. But ever since Durham outplayed Yorkshire three at Scarborough three weeks ago, their hold has been unshiftable. It would need a miracle to change that now.
Around Headingley, words of praise for Durham's captain Paul Collingwood, a former England regular who chose to end his days back in county cricket, and do much good as a result, are commonly heard.
Seam bowlers dominated affairs at Headingley, just as they were doing at Chester-le-Street, revelling in a spicy, mid-September pitch, a blessed relief for the fast bowlers' union after a long, hot summer. Of the 20 wickets to fall so far, 16 have fallen to catches to wicketkeeper or slips. On the second day alone, there were ten wicketkeeper catches. There have been club practice sessions that don't produce as many catching opportunities as that.
John Simpson and Jonny Bairstow both finished with six catches apiece, with Bairstow's Yorkshire half-dozen only one below the record set by his father, 'Bluey', against Derbyshire in 1982. Bairstow tweeted his delight last month after discovering one of his dad's England tour bags in the loft. The connections remain, discovered through a son's developing career.
But the keepers' catches have, by and large, been routine, a support act for the bowlers. What Tim Murtagh and Corey Collymore achieved for Middlesex, Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Patterson replicated for Yorkshire. Bowlers' run-up marks sunk menacingly into the lush, green outfield, tracks so deep that they made a statement, insisting that they would prove irresistable.
Patterson can rarely have looked more threatening for Yorkshire. Years dropped off Sidebottom with every over; Jack Brooks' low catch at long leg to dismiss the last man, Ollie Rayner, left him with 4 for 27. Sidebottom, who is involved in contractual negotiations with Yorkshire, is launching his cricket academy this week, in conjunction with his father, Arnie, and both can teach a lot about bloody-minded persistence on the hard days and how not to waste the opportunity when conditions are in your favour.
Until Yorkshire's bowlers quickened the pace of the game, Headingley was a maudlin place to be. There was little prospect that the Emley Moor transmitter, visible these days from the top of the new pavilion, would be broadcasting news of victory to the good folk beneath before the week was out. Only the diehards remained, spattered by the showers that studded the first two sessions.
Yorkshire began the second day at 109 for 3, but never threatened to achieve the sort of total to haul in the catch of batting bonus points they needed. But they could point to the match's singular batting performance, that of Kane Williamson, who battled gamely for four-and-a-quarter hours for 52 before he became one of two wickets for Middlesex's debutant Tom Helm, a tall, gangling pace bowler and England Under-19, who certainly looked worth an end-of-season chance.
Williamson was signed up in late season by Yorkshire to help win a Championship. He has not managed that, but after a duck on debut he has made fifty in every completed innings. This one was as demanding as any.
Williamson is as immersed in long-form cricket as Eoin Morgan, not required by Middlesex for this match, seems divorced from it. It would have broadened Morgan's cricketing education to contend with conditions like this, a reminder of the game in all its forms, but if the yearning does not seem to be there, whether it to Alex Hales at Nottinghamshire or Morgan at Middlesex, it is understandable if a county's interest begins to wear thin. It is a waste and English cricket is much the worse off for it.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo