Warwickshire enough for Ambrose
Warwickshire 462 (Ambrose 167, Patel 105, Wright 52, Hain 42, Roland-Jones 3-66) lead Middlesex 167 (Finn 37*, Rogers 34, Wright 4-56) and 0-0 by 295 runs
Tim Ambrose could lay claim to being the forgotten man of English cricket. In the last of his 11 Tests, in Barbados in early 2009, Ambrose made an unbeaten 76 and kept tidily enough in tricky conditions as West Indies batted for the best part of 200 overs.
Yet now, playing the most consistent cricket of his career and aged only 31, Ambrose is hardly given a passing thought when the discussion about potential England keepers comes around. Even when his old friend and colleague Matt Prior - the two traded the gloves at both Sussex and for England - is struggling with an achilles problem that is beginning to concern the national selectors, Ambrose's name is barely considered.
Perhaps that is understandable. Ambrose lost his way following his England experience and, as he battled depression, struggled to maintain a place in the Warwickshire team. He also struggled with a hip problem that has curtailed his involvement in limited-overs cricket in recent years and has seen much younger talents such as Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow emerge.
But Ambrose remains a fine player. And unlike Buttler or Bairstow he is not at the stage where he is learning his game, but might be considered an experienced, mature cricketer at the peak of his powers. He is, it might be noted, five years younger than Brad Haddin, the Australian keeper who did so much to win the Ashes.
Here Ambrose, cutting and sweeping especially well, turned a threatening position into a dominant one and provided a reminder of the technique and temperament that were once deemed good enough to win him a Test call-up and saw him produce a series-turning century in a Test against New Zealand. This was the 12th first-class century of his career but only the third since September 2009.
At one stage on the second day here Warwickshire, six down and 27 runs behind, were facing the prospect of conceding a first innings deficit. But a seventh-wicket stand of 175 in 45 overs between Ambrose and Jeetan Patel was followed by a stand of 113 between Ambrose and Chris Wright as Warwickshire eventually carved out a lead of 295.
"I think the chances of an England recall have gone for me," Ambrose said. "But I wouldn't say no if I was asked. Matt Prior has been, alongside AB de Villiers, the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world over the last couple of years and if he is fit there is no question he should play. There are some very good young keepers coming through; players I admire a lot. So playing for England is not something I've thought about."
But after the set-backs of the past, Ambrose is content to simply be playing cricket with a smile on his face. After enjoying a few happy years under Peter Moores' management at Sussex, he lost his way for a while after England dispensed with him.
"I was watching Sam Hain bat yesterday and thought: what a brilliant, uncomplicated game cricket is when you're an 18-year-old.
"It was the same for me and Matt Prior at Sussex. We were the only 18-year-olds in a dressing room where everyone else was 30. And we were made to feel welcomed and valued all the time. It was a great environment.
"Yes, for six to eight months at the end of 2010, I didn't want to play cricket any more. I was lucky, in retrospect, that it happened at the end of a season and I was lucky that I had the support of Ashley Giles and Warwickshire as a club. They were very good to me and gave me a contract when I wasn't even sure I wanted one. I have to praise them massively.
"Like other people in a similar position, I probably came back too early. But I am enjoying my cricket more than ever at present and I think I'm playing better than ever."
Patel looked a modest signing when he first joined Warwickshire. But having made a maiden first-class century in his maiden first-class innings for the club - 120 against Yorkshire here in May 2009 - he has developed into a valuable all-round performer and produced the best cricket of his career for the club.
He now averages 27.27 for them with the ball (compared to a career average of 38.16) and, after this, the second first-class century of his career, 30.08 with the bat (compared to 22.82). He could arguably be considered the most valuable overseas player who might be considered almost an ever-present in the county game these days. His recent decision to decline New Zealand's selection on their Caribbean tour only underlined how much he values his long-term relationship with Warwickshire.
His attacking style dispirits opposition. He is not afraid to hit in the air and is able, by accident as much as design, to hit the ball into unorthodox areas. And, even on this slow-scoring surface, his century took just 134 balls; 56 fewer than Ambrose.
Perhaps Middlesex were a little unfortunate. While their reckless batting squandered the first use of this pitch on day one, their three frontline seamers stuck to their task pretty well but found that such an easy-paced pitch was ill-suited to their back of a length style. More versatile bowlers might have adapted, but credit is due to the batsmen more than blame to the three seamers. This is a fine batting surface.
The support bowling and fielding, however, was poor. By mid-afternoon, Middlesex looked a dispirited bunch with several balls eluding ambivalent fielders and heads dropping as Chris Wright, playing against one of his former clubs, produced a passing imitation of Ian Bell against bowling that would not have been considered adequate at club level.
"We were put to the sword," the Middlesex coach Richard Scott admitted afterwards. "We were given a lesson in how to occupy the crease and have given ourselves another mountain to climb."
The pitch remains flat and Warwickshire, with Oliver Hannon-Dalby having sustained a side strain that is likely to keep him out of action for a month, are now a bowler light.
But Middlesex were bailed out by a great innings from their captain last week. They surely need other batsmen to take responsibility here if they are not to slide to a heavy defeat.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo