Northants lifted by Crook ton
Middlesex 488 for 9 dec and 30 for 1 lead Northamptonshire 384 (Crook 131, Hall 75, Kettleborough 73) by 134 runs
At some point in the offseason, between 2013's joyous celebrations and the start of the 2014 campaign, Northamptonshire wronged the gods of fate. How they did that is unclear, but the extent of their rotten luck suggests it may have involved smashing mirrors with black cats, under ladders.
From injuries in preseason, to the falling through of no less than three deals for overseas signings, Wantage Road has been a far cry from the smiles and pluck on show last season. If anything, their approach to recruitment and Division One cricket has been a tad naïve.
During the afternoon, news came through of two further injuries to compound their misery. Scans revealed that David Sales had torn ankle ligaments after slipping in the field during Northants' T20 Blast encounter with Durham on Friday. Here, Rob Keogh was officially ruled out of the match after he dislocated and broke a finger when he dropped a catch off Dawid Malan early on in his innings of 154. Both are expect to be out of action for about a month.
But, for the first time in what feels like an age, there were a handful of good news stories that hint at a brighter future.
Limited-overs captain Alex Wakely, who led the side impeccably during their successful T20 campaign last year, has been making huge strides in his rehabilitation from a ruptured Achilles sustained in March. He is ahead of schedule and, despite initially being ruled out for the entire season, could make a return to the field this term.
With the bat, they displayed a steely determination that suggested they are a side still possessing a great deal of fight. Of their three key contributors with the bat, it was two with Middlesex connections, Steven Crook and James Kettleborough on Championship debut, that stood out.
Crook, after 11 years and 95 innings, scored his maiden first-class hundred. Coming to the crease six wickets down and his side trailing by 320, he and Andrew Hall put on 144, Northants' highest partnership of the season, to steer them to safety.
Watchful for his first 30 balls, operating at a run every other ball, he imposed himself on a tiring Middlesex attack, sharing the scoring burden with Hall, who was also superb. Crook had moved back to Northants in 2013 with a view to playing more Championship cricket, having spent two years with Middlesex as something of a limited-overs specialist.
After 62 balls, he had fifty for only the second time in nine innings at Lord's. The next fifty took just 41 more balls, as he kept a solid base and threw his hands at any width from the seamers. On approach to three figures, his mask began to slip, as punk-rock cool turned to High School Musical nerves.
A fortuitous boundary off Steven Finn, that went directly behind the wicketkeeper, took him to 98, before he failed with a ramp shot aimed in the same direction. A scuffed dab to first slip and a suicidal single nearly saw the end of his partner Maurice Chambers. A four off the first ball of the next over did the trick. No longer does he have more chart hits - achieved with his band, Juliet the Sun - than Championship hundreds.
He was all smiles at stumps, at times lost for words trying to describe the feeling of joy at a Lord's hundred. It was the mention of Kettleborough's innings, a slick 73 in which he accumulated and then rebuilt, that had Crook at his most sure-minded.
"Outstanding," he said, "it doesn't come as a shock that he has come out and played as well as he has." Anyone around Wantage Road for the last two years and Middlesex for the last four can tell you as much.
In 2010, aged 17, Kettleborough broke the Bedford School record of 1,287 runs in a single season, set in 2003 by a certain Alastair Cook. That same summer, he captained Middlesex's to national success in the U-17s competition. At the end of the summer, Northants offered him a contract, which he turned down for the chance to join Middlesex's academy for two years.
In that time, he continually impressed for the county's 2nd XI but failed to break into the Championship side. When Northants came calling again in 2012, Kettleborough took them up on their offer.
His disciplined performance, coupled with Crook's blows, took Northants past the follow-on target and ensured the deficit going into the second innings was only 104. That, coupled with the demise of Chris Rogers - hooking to deep square leg after a barrage of well-directed short balls from Chambers - has the game well set for an intriguing final day.