County previews 2014 March 27, 2014

Middlesex well placed for title challenge

Play 03:12
Ramps backs Middlesex pace attack

Middlesex
Last year 5th, CC Div 1; 4th, South Group, FLt20; 3rd in Group C, YB40.

2013 in a nutshell
A decent season, but one that promised rather more than it ultimately delivered. Having started well in the Championship - Middlesex won their first two games and were unbeaten after seven - they fell away sharply, losing five of their last nine, including defeat against Derbyshire.

The problem was partially injuries to key bowlers and an over-reliance upon Chris Rogers, who was absent with Australia for a large part of the season, and Sam Robson, who started brightly but faded. The opening pair contributed six of the eight Championship centuries recorded by Middlesex players and not a single England-born player registered a century for them in the 2013 season. Dawid Malan - with a Championship average of 21.50 - and Joe Denly - 26.08 - struggled to deliver on their potential and left the batting appearing brittle.

Before the season, there were high hopes for the impact of James Harris, signed amid great competition from Glamorgan, and Toby Roland-Jones, who was tipped as a potential England seamer. But as it transpired, both men struggled for fitness and rarely performed at their best, leaving Middlesex as reliant on Tim Murtagh as ever. Ollie Rayner, the spin-bowling all-rounder, enjoyed a strong end to the season - including a 15-wicket match at The Oval.

After failing to win any of their first three Yorkshire Bank 40 games - two defeats and an abandonment - seven wins in nine showed they could be a force in 2014. They were in the hunt for a Friends Life t20 quarter-final with two games to play, too, but lost them both.

2014 prospects
England call-ups could have a huge impact at Middlesex. They should start the season with Eoin Morgan, having chosen the Championship over the IPL, Steven Finn and Sam Robson available and vying for England selection. But they are certain to lose Morgan for limited-overs duty at least and could well lose Robson to the Test team for much of the season.

At full strength - and they almost never were in 2013 - Middlesex have the sort of seam attack - Finn, Murtagh, Harris and Roland-Jones - that could win a Championship. With the underrated Gareth Berg and Neil Dexter in support, it is an attack that should also prove effective in limited-overs cricket, with Dan Christian expected to be added as a T20 overseas player. But Middlesex's batting order will have to contribute far more consistently if the team are to make the title challenge of which they are capable.

Key player
It is Rayner's all-round skill that balances the Middlesex team. But while he is a good slip catcher and decent batsman, it is his off-spin that will be required if Middlesex are to challenge for the Championship title. He finished last season well, albeit on helpful surfaces, and impressed enough to win a call-up to the England Lions squad. Even on unhelpful surfaces - and he came across a few - he managed to retain control with the best economy-rate of any of the frontline bowlers that have remained with the club. If he can continue his improvement in 2014, Middlesex will have an impressive attack that is perhaps only bettered by Warwickshire.

Bright young thing
Robson has a fantastic chance to establish himself as an England Test opener over the coming months. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mike Atherton at the crease, 24-year-old Robson is old-fashioned in many ways: he leaves the ball well, converts his good starts and appears to have the concentration and appetite for batting that bodes well for an opener. Some opposition have suggested he lacks the power or range of stroke to damage opposition but, in a format where accumulation and crease occupation is key, Robson has every motivation to start the season well for Middlesex. But it might be noted that for all Middlesex's improvement in recent years, very few senior members of their side can be considered locally developed.

Captain/coach
Depending on availability, Rogers will captain the four-day side, with Morgan captaining the limited-overs sides. Neil Dexter will deputise as required. Angus Fraser remains as director of cricket, combining the role with his new position as one of the England selectors.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Contenders in all formats. But the suspicion that too many highly-talented players - the likes of Finn and Malan - are out of form or unfulfilled lingers and plants doubts about their ability to sustain a challenge. Anything less than a top-four finish in the Championship should be considered a disappointment and they should be pushing for the knock-out stages in the limited-overs competitions.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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