Malan century worth the wait
Northamptonshire 89 for 3 trail Middlesex 488 for 9 dec (Malan 154*, Simpson 67, Spriegel 3-26) by 399 runs
Middlesex capitalised on a decent first day with a first-innings score of 488, which included a first Championship century in nearly two years for Dawid Malan. Northamptonshire did well to curb the scoring early on but, after getting the monkey off his back, Malan was able to take the hosts to an imposing total. His relief at the close, showered and well groomed, was evident: "It's definitely been a long time coming."
Armed with the new ball straight away, Northants had a breakthrough within the first over as Azharullah made use of the early morning conditions to trap Neil Dexter lbw. Joe Denly was the next to follow after a breezy 17 and, for a moment, it seemed Northants might skittle out Middlesex before lunch.
However, a stand of 128 between Malan and John Simpson took Middlesex past 400 and ensured they made the most of their handy position overnight. Simpson's knock of 67 was key, not least in allowing Malan the opportunity to end his century drought, before going on to his highest Championship score.
Upon reaching 90, his scoring options were limited; the bowlers offering him little width, as Stephen Peters backed them with a tight field. With one ball of the morning session remaining, Malan found himself on 96 and on strike to Steven Crook.
Sizing up a vacant leg-side boundary, he put everything into a full ball on leg stump, connecting well, only for the helmet of the bat-pad fielder to take a blow and save four runs. It was by no means a chance but Malan, walking back to the pavilion for lunch with a little look to the heavens, knew it was one of a few bits of luck that had fallen his way in the morning. Soon after the interval, 26 balls after entering the nineties, he had his hundred.
"I definitely had the nervous nineties," Malan said. "It really didn't feel like I was going to get out of them to be honest."
His uncertainty no doubt cost Middlesex their final batting point, but you could forgive Malan the tentativeness. Since his last Championship century, 121 against Warwickshire in August 2012, he has passed 90 on three occasions and failed to make it count. Two of those failures were this season, the last coming against Middlesex's current opponents, at Wantage Road in May.
While he has been a steady performer in limited-overs cricket, Malan's four-day form is best described as frustrating. On song, he is a real treat to watch, timing the ball emphatically, with the classical verve of a left-hander. But for all the languid strokeplay, he has a tendency to overthink his own game. Even today, in the moments before he clocked short leg on the head, he had decided on the ball he would receive (a bouncer) and the shot he would play (a clip over third man) before neither came to pass.
Last season was no different as he endured one of his leanest periods at the club, with just 387 runs in 19 innings. Unhappy with his limited-overs form, he dedicated most of the winters of 2011 and 2012 to that aspect of his game, while assuming his four-day game would fall in place accordingly. It didn't, and Malan soon found himself out of the XI.
"It's probably the first time I was properly left out at Middlesex," he said. "It was a big hit for me but it brought me back down to earth and reminded me that I can't neglect one format and concentrate on the others."
Even in that time out, he would spend many a match day at Lord's netting on the Nursery Ground or the indoor school with Middlesex's batting coach, Mark Ramprakash. At the time, some felt a few days away were best, but he has shown so far, with almost 600 runs by the end of July and an average of 45, that it was worthwhile.
As for the destination of this game, Malan was looking to the first session on Tuesday and a wish for at least four more Northants wickets. By his calculation, that would allow Middlesex to sculpt the game as they wish.
In the 26 overs they had at the visitors before the rain came, they had accounted for Peters, James Middlebrook and Matthew Spriegel. However James Kettlebrough, on Championship debut, has looked assured so far for his 42, particularly against the usually economical Tim Murtagh, who he took for five boundaries in the 29 balls he faced off him. As the light got worse, his partner Rob Newton did well to survive a barrage of well-directed short balls from Steven Finn. No doubt there will be more to come.