County previews 2014 March 27, 2014

Middlesex well placed for title challenge

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Ramps backs Middlesex pace attack

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.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on March 29, 2014, 8:33 GMT

    First reports on Steve Finn from pre-season friendlies is that he looks pretty good. Finn seems to be a confidence bowler: when he gets it right he's brilliant, when he gets it wrong it all goes to hell and beyond.

    Saying that he is mediocre is just daft. You don't get 50 Tests wickets so quickly if you can't bowl and Steve Finn has had good results in Tests, ODIs and T20 and has bowled well in England, in India, in Bangladesh and in Australia. Where he's been unreliable is in control: he lost his place in Australia in 2010/11 because even though he was striking out wickets he was going a 4-an-over doing it.

    Finn is still young and, like Jimmy Anderson, who was also picked very young and lost his way for a time, he will come back and probably better than ever.

  • Mark on March 29, 2014, 7:45 GMT

    Middlesex's bane for years now has been unreliable batting. Last season it derailed the title challenge. The bowling is strong, has good depth and there are even signs that the spin problems are being resolved with progress for Ollie Rayner and Ravi Patel vying with him for the spin slot - as a match-winning bowler, Patel is the clear leader and it is only Rayner's batting that kept him in the side.

    While Robson and Rogers were scoring runs for run, the lack of back-up was not serious. When Rogers went to play with Australia and talk of an England call-up pole-axed Robson with nerves, there were simply never the runs on the board that the bowlers could defend. Rogers is not Peter Pan and will not have much longer at the top level - if he has a poor season, the side will struggle. For various batsmen this season may be the last chance saloon: bags of talent, but years without showing it. Can Middlesex persist with players such as Berg, Malan, Denley & even perhaps Dexter much longer?

  • Harry on March 28, 2014, 20:15 GMT

    Finn is a distinctly average cricketer. He is an erratic bowler who really ought to have developed some control by now, offers nothing with the bat, and his fielding is poor. Forget England, he might struggle to retain his place in the Middlesex side this year.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2014, 18:29 GMT

    @GeoffreysMother Given the way the English international summer is structured (with the limited overs matches first) I hope than England level Finn alone, given the way he bowled at the Indian players on their last tour I think he could be an excellent ODI strike bowler but given his recent troubles he is best left to get overs in.

  • GeoffreysMother on March 28, 2014, 12:43 GMT

    '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' Yes that is a bit of an inditement for such a large club in such a densely populated area.

    Let's hope Finn gets back to something like his best. If he does , I hope England just use him in one day matches in the first instance. His role there, as the strike bowler is clear, and the next year is a big one for ODI's. This also leaves him lots of time at Middlesex to build his skills.

    England have plenty of candidates for the defensive opening bat and Robson, to my mind, still sits behind Cook, Root and Compton in this role. England need to be absolutely sure before they drop yet another youngster only to find the player they bring in, on the back of good county performances, is no better.

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