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Alex Winter at Hove
April 8, 2014
Middlesex 105 (Lewis 4-34, Magoffin 3-21) and 57 for 1 trail Sussex 386 (Prior 125, Anyon 50, Finn 6-80) by 224 runs
The decline of Matt Prior and collapse of Steven Finn were among the most concerning aspects of England's degeneration over the winter but on the third day at Hove they both provided performances to suggest English cricket might have bottomed out.
Prior, dropped three times, made a century as breezy as the wind which kept the day on the chilly side, and Finn took six wickets - and perhaps more interestingly did not concede an extra. They were a pair of pleasing performances with both players, particularly Prior - the Test vice-captain - set to be a large part of England's regeneration.
Having to drop arguably their finest ever wicketkeeper-batsman and brightest young fast bowler were signs that English cricket had veered alarmingly off course. Prior's form dropped off even when England were still winning but without him England's ability to entertain faded and their appeal in world cricket lowered.
Finn's fall into the abyss, a quite remarkable tumble for a bowler who played in the first Ashes Test last summer, asked deeper questions of England's coaching staff and the relationship with their Middlesex colleagues who guided Finn through their youth system.
Without one-day cricket to worry about Prior had time to take part in the Cape Rouleur cycle race over 600km and almost 6,000m of climbing in South Africa and in his first competitive innings since the Perth Test made his 28th first-class century.
It was a Prior innings with all the signs of the form that led him to be named England player of the year for 2012-13: lavish driving, crisp cutting and aggressive pulling in a 112-ball century. He blazed a cover drive into the pavilion fence to go into the 90s. Another in the over before lunch and a hook off next ball brought up an enthusiastically-celebrated century. It featured 17 fours and a six, the maximum a chance to James Harris at long leg that swirled in the wind and through his hands.
It was one of three chances Prior survived. The first on the opening evening the most costly when Prior had only 10, the second, with the game resuming after a washout on day two, on 32 at second slip and when 55 by Harris.
All three missed opportunities cost Middlesex dear as not only did the lead build with Prior at the wicket, it ratcheted up leaving Sussex with plenty of time to take another 10 wickets.
Finn at least emerged from an afternoon of struggle for the Middlesex attack with much credit. Despite his figures, this was by far a menacing performance to wow observers but a pleasing display that suggested Finn is heading in the right direction.
After four weak overs on the first evening, he returned to end a fourth-wicket stand that numbered one more than the Middlesex first-innings total. He nipped one in to clip the top of Matt Machan's off stump and followed up by getting Ashar Zaidi to edge to third slip. The wickets saw Finn grow in confidence and he bowled with greater pace and certainly greater accuracy than has been on show for a long time.
His length was consistent and while the mistimed pulls of Prior - caught at deep square leg - and James Anyon - taken at midwicket - might have inflated his figures, it was an encouraging display and he was the most dangerous of the Middlesex seamers. The other three disappointed: Finn was the only visiting bowler to take a wicket on day three and Harris and Toby Roland-Jones proved expensive.
One of the best attacks in the country on paper leaked runs at a healthy lick all day. The morning's runs came at a shade under 4.5 an over. Ben Brown, a brisk-scoring wicketkeeper in the mould of Prior, then joined the England wicketkeeper for a stand of 92 at the same rate before Brown was given out caught at slip - a decision he was visibly dissatisfied with and for which he should expect repercussions.
Middlesex were left with a huge deficit and having to bat out over 100 overs to save the game. A bad day had the potential to get much worse when Sam Robson provided a blot on an encouraging day for England by shouldering arms and being bowled but Chris Rogers survived two convincing lbw appeals to take his side into the final day in solid shape.
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